scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Pope creates tribunal to hold bishops accountable

Pope Francis arrived for his general audience Wednesday at the Vatican.Tony Gentile/REUTERS

Pope Francis, addressing arguably the biggest point of contention over the Vatican’s response to the Catholic child sexual abuse scandals, endorsed new procedures on Wednesday to judge bishops charged with violating the church’s “zero tolerance” policy for abuse by clergy members.

The Vatican announced Francis has approved the creation of a church tribunal to judge the accused bishops and to ensure they are punished by the church in addition to facing criminal penalties.

The idea — recommended by a panel headed by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston — comes as the pope’s handling of the long-lasting crisis has been drawing fire around the world. Some sex-abuse survivors and their representatives reacted cautiously to the new approach.


“I will withhold judgment of the committee until it’s proved it will do anything. There have been all kinds of committees over the years that essentially have done nothing,’’ said Ann Hagan Webb, the New England representative for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

A British abuse survivor, Peter Saunders, who sits on an antiabuse commission advising the pontiff and who has been critical of the Catholic Church on other fronts, called the creation of the tribunal a “positive step” that shows “the pope is listening.”

Vatican officials stressed that the tribunal is not intended to take the place of law enforcement investigations. If a bishop’s failure to act on an abuse charge constitutes a crime where he lives, the officials said, he would still have to face criminal consequences.

Instead, the tribunal is intended to ensure that in addition to whatever criminal liability a bishop may face, he’s also held accountable inside the church.

In effect, the tribunal is an answer to the most critical question many abuse victims and other observers have asked for years about the church’s official embrace of zero tolerance: What happens when a bishop ignores it?


Critics cited Bishop Robert Finn, of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri, who was convicted on a misdemeanor criminal charge of delaying to report an accusation of child abuse against one of his priests in 2012, but who remained on the job until Francis accepted his resignation in April.

Vatican officials said the new tribunal is designed to handle precisely that sort of situation. In theory, a bishop could appeal a verdict to the pope, but a Vatican spokesman said “there’s no reason to expect he’d overrule the tribunal’s decision.”

But the pope’s commitment to reform involving the abuse of minors by priests has come into question in parts of the world.

In Chile, the pontiff’s January appointment of Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid as the new bishop of the Diocese of Osorno generated strong national protest because of his ties to the Rev. Fernando Karadima, found guilty by the Vatican in 2011 of sexual abuse of minors and sentenced to a life of “penance and prayer.”

Karadima’s victims have accused Barros and three other bishops of covering up for the priest while he sexually abused followers during the 1980s and 1990s. When Barros was installed in Osorno on March 21, his Mass had to be cut short due to protests. An angry crowd threw objects at Barros, pushed him, and tried to stop him from entering the church.

Despite the outcry, Francis confirmed Barros in his new position.


Recent weeks have also brought strong criticism of the prelate appointed by the pope to clean up the Vatican’s messy finances. Cardinal George Pell of Australia has come under fire from a government commission in his home country investigating his handling of abuse cases as the archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001.

Testimony delivered at commission hearings has featured accusations that Pell tried to bribe an abuse victim into silence, among other alleged misdeeds, all of which Pell has strongly denied. Saunders, the British abuse survivor serving on the pope’s advisory commission, even publicly accused Pell of being “sociopathic” in his treatment of victims.

To date, there’s no sign that the pope’s support for Pell as his financial reformer has wavered.

The idea to create the tribunal came from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, an advisory panel created in 2014 and headed by O’Malley. The Boston cardinal’s role is further confirmation that he is the prime mover in shaping policy under Francis on matters related to sexual abuse.

O’Malley was traveling, and the Boston Archdiocese referred requests for comment to the Vatican.

Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt., said US bishops learned of the plan for the tribunal from news reports. He said the new panel would bring welcome clarity to any Vatican review of bishops’ actions.

‘‘This new board . . . provides a structure in which to address issues that may arise involving questionable behavior or inappropriate responsibility regarding the reporting of child abuse by a bishop,’’ said Coyne, who was spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston from 2002-2005, when the US clergy sex-abuse crisis erupted.


An American clearinghouse for information related to the Catholic abuse scandals,, released a statement Wednesday calling the new tribunal “a promising step” but warning that making it work would require “a courage and an aggressive commitment that have so far been sadly lacking.”

Roderick MacLeish, a lawyer whose firm represented hundreds of victims in the Boston Archdiocese sex-abuse scandal, said Cardinal Bernard Law, O’Malley’s predecessor in Boston, should be a focus of the new tribunal. Law was criticized for failing to adequately address the sex-abuse scandal in Boston.

“The first person who should be on the list is Cardinal Law. If this tribunal is going to be meaningful, it has to start in Boston,” MacLeish said.

Mitchell Garabedian, another Boston lawyer who has represented clergy sex-abuse victims, called the creation of the tribunal “cosmetic in nature.’’

“The members of the tribunal will probably be made up of church officials who had known of the sexual abuse of children by priests for decades yet did not act to protect children,” Garabedian said.

The group also cited an American prelate who might become a target for the tribunal: Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who has been accused of allowing at least two priests to continue serving despite facing either allegations or convictions for the abuse of minors.


The situation in St. Paul-Minneapolis is so bad that the archdiocese is in bankruptcy from paying victims’ claims, and prosecutors filed criminal charges last week against the archdiocese as a corporation for failing to protect children.

The new tribunal will be housed within the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which lends it immediate political heft.

In another sign of how seriously Francis takes the tribunal, he also approved an exception to a Vatican hiring freeze imposed in 2013 to allow the tribunal to attract qualified personnel.

Francis promised last year there would be no “daddy’s boys” on his watch, meaning bishops won’t be allowed to consider themselves above the law. He has now created a system designed to deliver on that.

As of this week, there’s no longer any confusion about how accountability is supposed to be imposed. The only question is how long it will take to start imposing it — and, perhaps, who will be first in line to get it.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr, and on