A little more than two years ago, Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter that hasn’t received much attention. It outlines what should happen when bishops — and men in similar roles — are negligent in their duty to protect their people.
“As a Loving Mother,” promulgated on June 4, 2016, begins by asserting, “The Church loves all her children like a loving mother, but cares for all and protects with a special affection those who are smallest and defenseless. This is the duty that Christ himself entrusted to the entire Christian community as a whole.
“Aware of this, the Church is especially vigilant in protecting children and vulnerable adults,” it says.
The brief letter indicates that among the “grave reasons” a bishop may be removed from his position is negligence “in particular in relation to cases of sexual abuse inflicted on minors and vulnerable adults.”
It goes on to list five articles that outline how such cases can be handled. Following is a brief summary of the articles. (The full letter is available at https://bit.ly/2pjzBAk.)
1. A bishop “can be legitimately removed from this office if he has through negligence committed or through omission facilitated acts that have caused grave harm to others, either to physical persons or to the community as a whole. The harm may be physical, moral, spiritual or through the use of patrimony.”
2. The Roman Curia “can open an inquiry into the case, informing the subject involved and giving the accused the possibility of providing documentation and testimony.”
3. “Before making a decision, the Congregation may meet, when appropriate, with other Bishops or Eparchs belonging to the same Bishops’ Conference or Synod of Bishops” to discuss the case.
4. “Whenever the removal of a Bishop is held to be opportune, the Congregation, depending on the circumstances of the case, will establish whether” to decree removal or “exhort the Bishop to present his letter of resignation within a period of fifteen days. If the Bishop does not give his response within this period of time the Congregation can proceed to issue the decree of removal.”
5. “The decision of the Congregation as stated in articles 3 – 4 must be submitted for the specific approval of the Roman Pontiff, who before making a definitive decision will take counsel with a special College of Jurists.”
It’s unclear whether or not this process has been used since it was established.
In a story published by America magazine’s website Sept. 17, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, president of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said the letter “has made a start, but we don’t know whether that was followed through and what kind of process is in place in case an allegation comes up.”
In light of accusations of sexual abuse made against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal who led the Archdiocese of Washington, and the Aug. 14 grand jury report that describes a past pattern of negligence among some bishops in Pennsylvania, these procedures are more important than ever.
When will we learn more? That remains to be seen — sooner, one hopes, than later.
In the meantime, let’s pray these tenets are employed and that they do justice to all involved.