In fact, in recent years, civil law has begun going where the Vatican has so far refused, prosecuting bishops and high-ranking church officials for covering up the crimes of the priests in their care and failing to report suspected abuse to police.
In Philadelphia, Monsignor William Lynn was convicted in June of endangering children for having helped move predators around, the first U.S. church official to be so convicted. In September, Kansas City, Missouri Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of failing to report suspected abuse after one of his priests was caught with child pornography.
‘‘These civil cases send a very important message,’’ Scicluna said. ‘‘This is part of the brief of every bishop. This is part of the oath that we take, that we be stewards and we protect the flock.’’
Yet at last week’s national meeting of U.S. bishops in Baltimore, church leaders made no public comment on Finn’s failure to follow the bishops’ own policy on reporting suspected child abuse to civil authorities. He remains a bishop and participated fully in the meeting. Also attending was Cardinal Justin Rigali, who retired as archbishop of Philadelphia in disgrace after failing to fix an archdiocese that was faulted by the same grand jury indictment that accused Lynn of endangering children.
Scicluna acknowledged that the pope has yet to discipline any bishop for negligence in handling an abuse case. While Cardinal Bernard Law resigned in 2002 after the abuse scandal erupted in his Boston archdiocese, he wasn’t sanctioned and was in fact named archpriest of one of the Vatican’s pre-eminent Rome basilicas — a cushy promotion to his critics.
Church law provides for bishops to be punished for negligence, and in the past year Benedict has forcibly removed a handful of bishops for mismanagement and doctrinal dissent in a hint that he may be more willing than ever to get rid of problem bishops. The issue is theologically problematic, though, because bishops are considered by divine right to be the stewards of their dioceses.
‘‘The rules are there but they need to be applied’’ when it comes to disciplining bishops who botch abuse cases, Scicluna said. ‘‘People make mistakes. They need to repent and change their ways. But if they are not able to repent and change their ways, they should not be bishops.’’
In a bid to compel bishops to do the right thing, Scicluna’s office last year gave bishops’ conferences a one-year deadline to draft guidelines to protect children and better screen priests to prevent pedophiles from being ordained. Many countries, including the U.S., Ireland and Germany, had already developed tough guidelines but much of the developing world and even Italy hadn't.
By the May deadline, only half the bishops’ conferences had responded. Scicluna said the figure now stood at 80 percent, with Africa dragging down the total.
Scicluna blamed cultural differences as the core problem in Africa, including different perceptions of what constitutes abuse and when a child is no longer a minor. Church law sets the age at 18; some African cultures consider a girl to be a woman at age 14 or 15, and therefore able to consent to sex.
Despite the problems, Scicluna says he considers an 80 percent response rate a ‘‘success story’’ that should be shared beyond the church, citing the recent sex abuse scandals at the BBC and the Boy Scouts of America as evidence that the problem isn’t the church’s alone.
He acknowledged, though, that the key is now for church leaders to implement the guidelines they have established.
‘‘This is not ‘mission accomplished,'’’ Scicluna said. ‘‘This is a growing challenge for the church, because sin will always be with us and also crime. And if we lower our guard, we are not being stewards.’’
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