Some bishops may want to disappear into retirement. But given the seriousness of the allegations, there should be legal proceedings

By Ed Condon, a Canon Lawyer, a Contributing Editor, The Catholic Herald, 

The last 24 hours have seen the saga of the Chilean sexual abuse scandals and alleged cover-up take several dramatic turns. On Thursday, the Vatican released a letter from Pope Francis to the Chilean bishops. In it, the Pope referred to the need for “short, medium and long term” actions to “restore justice”. On Friday morning a document was leaked to Chilean media in which the Pope used much stronger language. He stated, according to the leaked document, that people needed to be removed from office but that this alone would be “not enough”.

Most dramatically, the leaked letter contains allegations of the most serious kind of abuse of office concerning the Chilean hierarchy. These include the suppression of allegations of sexual abuse, the wilful transfer of suspected or known abusers to other assignments, interference in canonical investigations and pressuring the investigators themselves, and destroying evidence.

The substance of these allegations alone is explosive. But the leaked text was followed by more news. Later on Friday, it emerged that the entire Chilean hierarchy, who have been in Rome for the last several days in an emergency conference with the Pope, had submitted their written resignations to the Holy Father on Thursday.

It now remains to be seen if Pope Francis will accept all, some, or none of the letters.

The resignation of effectively an entire country’s hierarchy is certainly dramatic. The move has been accompanied by a letter from the bishops thanking Pope Francis for his “fraternal correction” and asking for “forgiveness” for the pain caused to victims. Should Pope Francis accept the resignations en masse, it would make for a natural end to the crescendo of the sex abuse scandal in Chile and allow him to begin deeper and wider reforms with a clean slate of bishops to work with.

I sincerely hope he does not do this.

A mass resignation, accompanied by a group mea culpa letter, gives the impression of the Chilean bishops taking the matter as seriously as they can. In fact, it could ensure that no individual person or persons have to answer directly for what they did. They all express remorse, they all accept collective responsibility, they all resign, no individual answers for individual crimes. It is, in effect, an entire national episcopacy trying to take the gentleman’s way out, and Pope Francis should have none of it.

The Pope himself has implored victims for forgiveness, saying he was “part of the problem” through his initial defence of Bishop Juan Barros, whose association with the known abuser Fr Fernando Karadima sparked the crisis. Having had to make such a public act of personal responsibility and humility, he should now insist that each of the Chilean bishops is held similarly accountable for whatever part they have played.

In June 2016, Francis issued the motu proprio Come Una Madre Amorevole, which provided a clear legal mechanism for the prosecution of bishops for abuse of power and office, especially in relation to the handling of sex abuse allegations. The charges laid out in Friday’s leaked document are a scandalous laundry list of the very worst crimes envisaged by Come Una Madre, and it should be unsparingly applied to each bishop who has offered his resignation. There should be a clear commitment of whatever resources are necessary for a full criminal prosecution of any charge for which there is evidence.

In the wake of the Chilean sexual abuse scandal, and especially the emerging indications of deliberate cover-ups, no bishop should be allowed to resign. Criminal behaviour requires a credible legal response and sanction: if they are found guilty, the Chilean bishops should be stripped of their offices.

There will be immense pressure upon Pope Francis to accept the resignations and move on. Instigating such a large number of canonical criminal proceedings against sitting bishops would drag the matter out for months, if not years. But taking that harder, longer road would be a real demonstration of probity, accountability and rigour in handling the abuse crisis.

The manner in which some bishops, even cardinals, were allowed to disappear into resignation and quiet retirement following the sexual abuse scandals in America was widely seen as an affront to victims. Pope Francis has a chance to prevent this happening again, and he has already given himself the legal mechanism to do it.

For the good of all, the days of allowing people to choose the metaphorical bottle of brandy and pearl-handled revolver need to end. Bishops facing credible allegation should be investigated; and any who have knowingly placed children at risk, covered up sexual abuse, suppressed allegations, and destroyed evidence must face justice – for themselves, for the victims, and for the Church.

Ed Condon is a canon lawyer and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald.