Will New Papal Instruction on Clerical Sex Abuse Target Danneels, Barros?

papaVatican Radio reports on the issuance of a new motu proprio letter from Pope Francis that aims to deal with episcopal enablers of clerical sex abuse:

In a new Apostolic Letter, issued motu proprio, Pope Francis has established new norms providing for the removal of Bishops (or those equivalent to them in Canon Law) from their offices in cases where they have “through negligance, committed or omitted acts that have caused grave harm to others, either with regard to physical persons, or with regard to the community itself.”

The Apostolic Letter “Come una madre amorevole” (As a Loving Mother) also clarifies that, with regard “to abuse of minors or vulnerable adults, it is sufficient that the lack of diligence be grave.”

In a note explaining the new procedures, the Director of the Holy See Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, said, “The Apostolic Letter insists on the importance of vigilant care for the protection of minors and vulnerable adults, calling for a ‘particular diligence.” Therefore, he continued, “it clarifies that negligence regarding cases of sexual abuse committed against children or vulnerable adults are among the ‘grave causes’ that justify removal from ecclesiastical Offices, even of Bishops.”

We already know that Francis is keen to discipline orthodox bishops implicated in such malfeasance, as was the case with Bishop Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, whose case we covered here, here, and here.

But what about Francis’ personal friends? The ones who, like Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium — who was caught on tape attempting to silence a victim of clerical sex abuse — helped to get Francis elected? As I shared with our readers last year:

On April 8, 2010, the newly retired Cardinal Danneels received some visitors at his home. They were the relatives of the Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, Danneels’ close friend. At this meeting, the nephew of Vangheluwe described a long and sordid 13 year molestation by his uncle, the Bishop of Bruges. Cardinal Daneels advised the nephew not to go public with the sexual abuse. During the meeting, Danneels advised the young man not to “make a lot of noise” about the abuse he endured from his uncle bishop because Vangheluwe was scheduled to retire in a year anyway. “It would be better that you wait,” advised Danneels, while also urging the young man to forgive his uncle.

“The conversation was tape recorded by the nephew and subsequently released to the press. Cardinal Danneels, the former head of Belgium’s Roman Catholic Church for 3 decades, could be heard on tape urging this sexual abuse victim to stay quiet and not disclose the abuse until after the bishop who repeatedly molested him over a span of 13 years could retire. After the release of the recording, Danneels did not dispute the authenticity of the conversation. A media firestorm was unleashed in Belgium, a country still reeling over institutional cover ups of child sex abuse.

Or what of Bishop Barros, who raised eyebrows in the pope’s own anti-abuse commission and whose appointment as Bishop of Osorno in Chile was met with passionate protests? What of Francis’ scornful response to these concerns?

“The Osorno community is suffering because it’s dumb,” Pope Francis told a group of tourists on St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, because it “has let its head be filled with what politicians say, judging a bishop without any proof.”

“Don’t be led by the nose by the leftists who orchestrated all of this,” the pope said.

The video, filmed by an Argentine tourist in May, was obtained by a Chilean television station and broadcast Friday, quickly instilling doubts here about the pope’s commitment to protecting victims of sexual abuse.


Hundreds of demonstrators interrupted Bishop Barros’s installation ceremony in March, blocking his passage and shouting, “Barros, get out of the city!” The protests have not stopped since, but this time the anger has turned to the pope.

“The pope’s comments aggravated our discontent,” said Juan Carlos Claret, a spokesman for Osorno’s Lay Organization, which has been holding protests and candlelight vigils against Bishop Barros for months.

“It is the Church of Osorno that is demonstrating; we are not taking orders from political parties,” Mr. Claret said. “We are now seeing the real face of Pope Francis, and we demand an explanation.”

Some people I respect — individuals with reasonably solid theological training — say that the new changes actually represent an improvement, a clarification where there was previously ambiguity. And of course, actual cases of epsicopal coverup of such crimes demand to be addressed without equivocation.

There is currently no English text of the motu proprio, but sources in Rome tell me that it is primarily directed at ordinaries currently serving in episcopal sees. This seems strange when “retired” Cardinals like Law and Danneels are still out there, consequence free. Barros is a new bishop, and thus, should be among the first to earn the scrutiny of this new document, but if Francis really means business on this issue, Danneels can’t go unaffected.

The simple fact is this: if friends of the pope are off limits, the new procedures are all but worthless. And to be frank, we don’t need another weapon, however appealing it may be on the surface, that will ultimately be used only against bishops who allow Catholic Tradition to flourish in their dioceses, oppose the obvious interpretations of Amoris Laetitia, or in some other way “make trouble” for the current program of the Holy See.

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