Cardinals attending Pope Francis’ Vatican summit on preventing sex abuse by clergy have called for a new culture of accountability in the Catholic Church to punish bishops and other superiors who fail to protect their flocks from predator priests.
On the second day of Francis’ extraordinary gathering, the focus of debate shifted to how church leaders must acknowledge that decades of their own cover-ups, secrecy and fear of scandal had only worsened the crisis.
Francis summoned 190 bishops and other senior church figures for the four-day tutorial on preventing abuse and protecting children after the scandal erupted last year in Chile and again in the US.
Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich said new legal procedures are needed, and that lay experts must be involved at every step of the process to investigate and punish Catholic leaders when they cover up abuse.
Mumbai Cardinal Oswald Gracias said bishops must hold themselves accountable and work together because the problem is not confined to one part of the world.
He said: “We must repent, and do so together, collegially, because along the way we have failed. We need to seek pardon.”
Cardinal Cupich said rank-and-file Catholics know far better than priests what trauma abuse and cover-up has caused.
“In large part it is the witness of the laity, especially mothers and fathers with great love for the church, who have pointed out movingly and forcefully how gravely incompatible the commission, cover-up and toleration of clergy sexual abuse is with the very meaning and essence of the church,” he said.
“Mothers and fathers have called us to account, for they simply cannot comprehend how we as bishops and religious superiors have often been blinded to the scope and damage of sexual abuse of minors.”
While the Vatican has tried to crack down on the abusers themselves for two decades, it has largely failed to tackle the bishops and superiors who moved them around from parish to parish.
Cardinal Cupich called for transparent new structures of reporting allegations against superiors, investigating them and establishing clear procedures to remove them from office if they are guilty of negligence in handling cases.
He proposed that metropolitan bishops – who are responsible for other bishops in their geographic area – should be tasked with conducting the investigations, with the help of lay experts. The metropolitan bishop would then forward the results to the Vatican.
It is not immediately clear how Cardinal Cupich’s proposals square with those being studied by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Those procedures, which called for a code of conduct for bishops and a third-party confidential reporting system, ran into legal problems last year at the Vatican, which blocked US bishops from voting on them at their November assembly.
At the time of the blocked vote, Cardinal Cupich proposed his “Metropolitan model”, which he articulated from the privileged position as an organiser of Francis’ summit.
Among the participants in the summit is the head of the US conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who had been responsible for pushing the proposals blocked by the Holy See.
More than 30 years after the scandal first erupted in Ireland and Australia, and 20 years after it hit the US, bishops and Catholic officials in many parts of Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia still either deny that sex abuse by clergy exists in their regions, or play down the problem.
Francis, the first Latin American pope, called the summit after he himself botched a well-known sex abuse cover-up case in Chile last year.
Cardinal Gracias told the conference that it is not acceptable for bishops in Africa or Asia to say that the problem of clergy sex abuse does not exist in their regions.
“I dare say there are cases all over the world, also in Asia also in Africa,” Cardinal Gracias said.