VATICAN CITY – The pope’s summit early next year on preventing sex abuse should also address holding bishops accountable when they fail to protect their flocks from pedophile priests, the Vatican’s leading sex abuse expert said Monday.
Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna said the February summit of global church leader is the appropriate venue for discussing “a great expectation for more accountability” among Catholic faithful worldwide.
The Vatican said last month that Pope Francis had summoned the presidents of the estimated 130 Catholic bishops’ conferences to a Feb. 21-24 meeting to discuss the “protection of minors.” The announcement was made as clergy sex abuse revelations and cover-up allegations on several continents fueled a scandal that now threatens Francis’ papacy.
Scicluna, who for a decade was the Vatican’s sex crimes prosecutor, has long acknowledged the need for bishops to be punished if they covered up for predators.
Abuse survivors and their advocates accuse the Vatican of turning a blind eye when bishops moved priests who were suspected of or known for misconduct from parish to parish instead of reporting them to police or sanctioning them canonically.
While hundreds of priests have been defrocked over the years for raping and molesting minors, only a few bishops have faced sanctions for failing to prevent such crimes.
Francis has had a steep and difficult learning curve on the issue of complicity and culpability. He was excoriated earlier this year for having defended a Chilean bishop accused of witnessing and ignoring abuse by Chile’s most notorious predator priest.
The pope eventually did an about face and acknowledged “errors in judgment,” vowing that bishops would no longer be shielded from questions about how they responded to allegations against priests in their dioceses.
Francis himself has been accused of complicity in covering up an American cardinal’s sexual misdeeds with adult seminarians years ago.
“We know there is a great expectation for more accountability,” Scicluna said. “How is that going to develop? I think we need to trust Pope Francis to develop a system whereby there is more accountability.”
Asked if abuse cases with adult victims could be prosecuted by the Vatican in the same way child abuse is, Scicluna said it “should be considered.”
Scicluna also revealed that despite being the Catholic Church’s leading authority on clerical sex abuse, he relies on lay experts to investigate allegations in his archdiocese. As archbishop, he must be a spiritual father to both his priests and his flock.
“I can’t trust my judgment because there’s a spiritual sentiment, a closeness that doesn’t give me the necessary distance I need for serene justice,” Scicluna said.
Such lay review boards are a feature of U.S. dioceses, but are by no means the norm around the world.