ROME — Bishops must follow the Catholic church's laws and standards when dealing with priests who sexually abuse children or face possible church sanctions for negligence, the Vatican's sex crimes prosecutor said Wednesday.
Monsignor Charles Scicluna spoke to reporters on the sidelines of a Vatican-backed symposium on clerical sex abuse that is designed to help bishops around the world craft guidelines to protect children and keep pedophiles out of the priesthood. Priests and bishops from 110 dioceses and 30 religious orders are attending the four-day workshop ahead of a May deadline to submit their guidelines for review by the Holy See.
Survivors of clerical abuse, government investigations and clerics themselves have long blamed bishops for failing to report abusive priests to police and failing to apply church law to sanction them internally. Victims' groups have denounced the lack of accountability of bishops who were never punished for having moved priests from parish to parish where they could abuse again.
Scicluna, the promoter of justice in the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said it was "unacceptable" for bishops to ignore church law and standards to deal with abusers and said canon law provides for sanctioning bishops who do — including being removed as bishop.
The law, however, is not commonly applied — at least as far as sex abuse cases goes. In fact, there is no known, recent case in which a bishop has been forcibly removed for having mishandled a case of an abusive priest.
"It is a crime in canon law to show malicious or fraudulent negligence in the exercise of ones duty," Scicluna said. "I'm not saying that we should start punishing everybody for any negligence in his duties. But ... it is not acceptable that when there are set standards, people do not follow the set standards."
He allowed, however, that only the pope can remove a bishop and it's not something that happens every day. Theologically speaking, bishops are very much masters of their own dioceses. But Scicluna said ecclesial accountability needed to be "further developed" through application of existing church law.
"What we need to do is to be vigilant in choosing candidates for the important role of bishop, and also to use the tools that canonical law and tradition give for accountability of bishops," he said. "It's not a question of changing laws, it's a question of applying what we have."
While the church has been slow to sanction high-ranking prelates who fail to report abusers, civil law has begun to pick up the slack.
In the United States, a church official is facing trial in Philadelphia on alleged child endangerment and conspiracy charges for allegedly failing to protect children from pedophile priests in his care in the diocese. Monsignor William Lynn, who served as secretary of clergy in the Philadelphia archdiocese from 1992 to 2004, was the first U.S. church official ever charged over accusations of administrative failings in the priest-abuse crisis.
Subsequently, in Kansas City, Missouri, Bishop Robert Finn was indicted in October for allegedly failing to report suspected child abuse involving a priest who was later charged with possessing child pornography.
Both men say they are innocent.
Scicluna said where bishops fail to do the right thing, the pope's ambassadors to individual countries hear directly from victims of abuse and report back to Rome. Papal nuncios, he said, "have the duty also to listen to the people in order to convey the concerns of the local church to the Holy Father."
Scicluna addressed the symposium Wednesday morning, denouncing the "deadly culture of silence or 'omerta'" that still surrounds clerical abuse in much of the world.
"No strategy for the prevention of child abuse will ever work without commitment and accountability," he said.
Advocates for victims have dismissed the symposium as a farce, saying the only way children will be safe is if the Vatican releases the names and files of known molesters.
On Tuesday, psychologists told bishops at the conference they should listen first to the victims, because priests who rape and molest children lie when confronted with an accusation but victims usually tell the truth.
The symposium, held at the Pontifical Gregorian University, wraps up Thursday with the unveiling of an online resource center for best practices to fight abuse.