By Patrick Howell, SJ
Pope Francis has taken another major step forward by establishing an independent board for reviewing bishops who have been negligent, remiss or recalcitrant about addressing sexual abuse issues in their diocese. Such a structure is long overdue. More importantly, it further institutionalizes safeguards for the protection of children and vulnerable young people.
Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley and the pope’s special commission on clergy sexual abuse strongly advocated for such a board. The system also gives strong powers to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to judge bishops “with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors.”
One might wish that the board could extend its purview to other abuses of office by bishops. Until now about the only situations in which a pope has removed a bishops has been for financial malfeasance.
A word of caution is called for, however.
John Paul II was somewhat notorious for curbing or admonishing bishops who were pushing forward the reforms of the Second Vatican Council far faster and in areas with which he disagreed. Oscar Romero in San Salvador, Raymond Hunthausen in Seattle, Dom Hélder Câmara in Recife, Brazil; Jacques Gaillot in Évreux in Normandy, France; and Samuel Ruiz in Chiapas, Mexico, were all inaugurating a welcoming, inclusive church which had a special affection and priority for the poor. They were exemplary “Pope Francis bishops” long before their time. They truly believed the teaching of the Council’s foundational document LumenGentium and its recognition of the baptismal call to holiness of all the faithful. Consequently, they began structures of subsidiarity and shared responsibility for the People of God on a journey together in faith. All, however, in various ways felt the heavy hand of the pope and the vigilant watchman Cardinal Josef Ratzinger.
So my only reservation about the establishment of this new independent review board is that it too could be subject to abuse by a strong-minded, more ideological pope, who wanted to curb pastoral initiatives with which he disagreed.
As far back as Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), who curbed the abuse of investiture by asserting the authority of the pope, an increasing centralization of authority in the Church has occurred. These reforms were much needed, but eventually they too needed reform. This human reality is why the Protestant principle of a Church reformata, semper reformanda (a reformed Church, which is always being reformed) makes eminent sense to me.
In so many ways, Pope Francis is heralding a new time in the Church. This is yet another occasion for joy—Gospel joy.
Patrick Howell, S.J., is the Chair of Conversations magazine and professor of pastoral theology at Seattle University.