ROME — The Vatican announced today that Pope Francis’s Council of Cardinals — nine top churchmen charged with reforming the Roman Curia — embraced a plan by Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley for a tribunal to weigh “allegations of the abuse of office by a bishop connected with the abuse of minors.”


The proposal, accepted by the pope, marks a shift in Vatican handling of the long crisis by establishing a church arena for proceedings against bishops, who with few exceptions have had de facto immunity for any role in concealing sexual predators.


The tribunal will be part of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which has long judged theologians accused of straying from doctrinal unity. In a development pushed by Pope Benedict, who as a cardinal governed the CDF for most of John Paul’s long papacy, the office has in recent years defrocked close to 900 priests for abuse of youngsters.


The development was welcomed by lay people appointed by the pope to his advisory board, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. 


“I am very pleased that Pope Francis has approved our commission’s proposal concerning bishop accountability in case of abuse of minors,” Dr. Catherine Bonnet, a French psychiatrist with a history of treating abuse survivors, told GroundTruth. 


“It is a very important move forward for the protection of minors,” she said from France, echoing praise of Peter Saunders, an abuse survivor in London on the commission.


Pope Francis has previously taken sanctions against two Latin American bishops, and he authorized a 2013 law governing child abuse and financial crimes by Vatican officials which led to proceedings against a papal ambassador to the Dominican Republic charged with pedophilia.


The new office will have its own secretary, or internal director, within one of the most powerful congregations in the Vatican.


Irony clouded the announcement that the cardinals had voted unanimously for the new office. One of the nine, Cardinal George Pell, has been in a blistering crossfire with Peter Saunders, the most outspoken member of the Pontifical Commission.


Saunders spoke about Pell on the Australian news program “60 Minutes” on May 31, responding to information from a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.


“He is making a mockery of the papal commission, of the pope himself, but most of all of the victims and the survivors,” Saunders said on the broadcast.


Citing his own meetings in Australia with other survivors, Saunders called on the pope to remove Pell.


Francis has remained aloof from the heated exchange.


Pell is one of the most powerful cardinals in Rome, overseeing Secretariat for the Economy, which coordinates the budget of some two dozen offices in the Vatican city-state, replacing the old balkanized system of fiefdoms – one of Pope Francis’s signature reforms.


One witness to the Royal Commission gave testimony on how he was raped by the cleric, and in seeking compensation from the church, underwent wrenching cross-examination by attorneys with Pell’s approval.


Church lawyers admitted to the commission that the grilling was unnecessary because the case only dealt with the issue of whether the victim’s claims fell within the statute of limitations.


BishopAccountability, the online archive, in a review of documents and testimony, stated in a recent post: “Cardinal Pell conceded to the commission that his instructions had resulted in [the victim] ‘being cross-examined and challenged as to whether the abuse occurred, in circumstances which were harmful and painful to him.’”


Pell is hardly the only bishop to use harsh legal tactics against abuse survivors. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, near the end of his tenure as archbishop of Milwaukee, transferred $57 million into a cemetery fund as lawyers for victims prepared claims. The archdiocese, in a grinding bankruptcy procedure for more than four years, recently lost a federal court decision on the funds as potential assets for the cases.


Perhaps the largest question hovering over the new tribunal at the Vatican is whether its staff will review legal documents from countries where bishops are at the center of litigation or criminal prosecution, and consider forensic proof in foreign courts acceptable evidence in weighing accusations against a bishop. 


Speaking of Pell’s approach to abuse victims, Saunders said in the TV interview: “He has a catalog of denigrating people, of acting with callousness, cold-heartedness — [it’s] almost sociopathic I would go as far as to say, this lack of care.”


Richard Leder, an attorney for Pell, put Saunders on notice in a letter, saying that he had no authority “as a spokesperson for the Committee, adopting the authority of the Pontifical Commission and the Holy See in a wholly misleading manner.’’


Verbal bullets of this kind are common in high-stakes legal scrimmaging in countries rooted in British Common Law.


But for the Vatican — and a reformist pope who enjoys immense global popularity — the spectacle of a pedophilia victim on a special papal commission, and a powerful cardinal, duking it out in the media, was unseemly. 


The Vatican’s press office issued a statement of support for Pell.


Leder’s letter said that Pell had twice given testimony to the Royal Commission and a previous parliamentary inquiry. 


“He has refuted on oath the various allegations which you chose to repeat on 60 Minutes,” Leder wrote.


Saunders in subsequent interviews has refused to retract his statements. Pell — who voted with the other eight cardinals in a unanimous move for the new Vatican tribunal — is scheduled to give testimony at a future Royal Commission hearing.


Meanwhile, from America, the Minnesota district attorney of St. Paul-Minneapolis, filed a six-count criminal indictment against the archdiocese as an organization, spelling out a chain of misconduct by Archbishop John C. Nienstedt, and his two predecessors going back several years, accusing church officials of failure to protect children.


Each counts carries a $3,000 fine, as a misdemeanor, and is unlikely to result in prison for any church official. But the prosecutor further requested a court-approved plan in which the state would closely monitor church procedures to ensure that no such clerics function.


One of the priests who abused youngsters, and is now imprisoned, had a pattern of personality problems going back to his seminary years yet enjoyed a series of promotions.


Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability, called the Vatican’s announcement of the tribunal “a promising step toward bishop accountability, but it will require a courage and an aggressive commitment that has so far been sadly lacking, despite the innovations of Pope Francis.”

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  • Sierra

    As long as our heirarcy is not responsible for their actions, justice will not be done, pedofiie priests will be allowed to continue to move around pedolfile priests and our children will be at risk. The only answer is to restruture our heiarchy in such a way that they cannot change the rules, the way things ae looked at, but be responsive to the needs of all the people, not just of the heirarcy. I’ve said too many times that power corrupts and total power corrupts totally. Our heirarchy is imploding and it is time to make all the changes that may be necessary to stop that implosion, including getting rid of rules that 80% of Catholics, in the USA anyway, and also all the Asian countrys about birth control. We need Bishops and Cardinals to be elected by the people whom they will serve, not by the convenice of Rome. Too many misfits have happened and that is just plain wrong. Rogue Bishops who are using church money, or even money that they have gotten for helping the wealthy get their way, should be exposed excused from having to spend their time in their old age in pretending to be Bishops or Cardinals who care about the people they are supposedly been serving. Every potential or actual Bishop should have to write out what they see as factors that would make them a good fit, or not, with a specific community. That way the blasts that hit San Francisco and other similar situations would not be such a disaster, but possible much better fits. The Catholic Church is losing it’s people because they don’t see the reason for the rules (supposedly celibant priests/Bishops making rules about married couples love life is totally brainless). Younger people don’t want to live under those rules, but rather than follow their own consciences and stay with the church they leave in discust! We need more men, like Kung to be there with the heirarchy to keep them in line. We need to bring in protestant religious also. They have good ideas also, and they have good reasons why they are not putting people into what many see as impossible situations. Open up the windows and doors and get as much good input as possible. The church has not come up with any good reason why we cannot have women priests. The church has not come up with any reason, other than financial, that they will not allow married priests (unless they come to us from the Church of England)! Too many things don’t make enough sense. You couldn’t get through college if you wrote papers like our heirarchy does so brainlessly! It is the power the heirarchy holds that allows them to do what ever they want, without considering the voice of the church (we are told that we, the church are the people of God, yet it is the men of the heirarchy who put millstones around our necks. Are we going to let this degradation to go on until there is no longer a Catholic Church. If we go on this way their will be only a handfull of Catholic Churches in every state in the USA and in very few areas of Europe! Please, please Pope Franics and all those of you in the heirarchy who are able to think outside your own pretective boxes, please start getting realistic before you have totally destoryed our church. Let married men be priests. Let women be priests. Remember that the one place Jesus liked to go to for rest was the home of Martha and Mary and their brother. He would talk to Mary for hours teaching her about what he knew as the right way to live, to think about other people, especially the poor. He included women, but our church, when they do give the nuns and sisters a role, they feel they can tell them what to do. And that without cleaning up their own messes! Please Pope Francis, try to see what it is going to take to help our church move up and out of the pit we are in. Perhaps Catholics who left during the last 20 to 40 years will come back and make our curches vibrant again! Get rid of the pedofile priests totally. Let them spend the rest of their lives with those groups who stay in silent prayer and useful activiites, let women and men who are more worthy take over the priestly duties of parishes rather than keep throwing new inpediments in the way of Catholic familys!

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