Last week, in a presentation at Villanova University, the Jesuit priest Hans Zollner, who is spearheading efforts to deal with the sex abuse crisis as president of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, spoke of the crisis as causing “institutional traumatization” across the Church, a theme I recently discussed here on CWR in some detail, reflecting some of the latest research in traumatology.
Zollner went on to lament the fact that the number of cases currently in Rome, along with the increasing number making their way there, have overwhelmed everybody, leading to massive overwork for the 18 or so people who “don’t have the infrastructure or the training to deal with the reported incidents that have come in…”
Zollner’s comments echo what was reported just before Christmas by Nicole Winfield of the Associated Press. She noted that the “Vatican Office Struggles to keep up with Clergy Abuse Cases,” including, reportedly, more than a thousand cases in 2019 alone—a number apparently expected to rise. This leaves the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) “overwhelmed, struggling with a skeleton staff that hasn’t grown at pace to meet the four-fold increase in the number of cases arriving in 2019 compared to a decade ago.”
Winfield’s report notes that the CDF asserted control over these cases “nearly two decades” ago. At that point it was headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who was Prefect of the Congregation from 1981 until his election to the papacy in 2005.
I have studied and written appreciatively about Ratzinger’s works going back to the early 1960s, and one key and consistent theme for him throughout those decades is his regretting of Roman centralization since the Second Vatican Council. This is certainly the view he expressed in Salt of the Earth, published in 1997 by Ignatius Press, where he argued that the Church must develop more robust regional structures so that some work could be returned from Rome back to the regions.
How, then, could he square those longstanding views about decentralization with his asserting control in the CDF of sex abuse cases? And why?
It is clear to me that he would only have made such a move in 2001 with very considered reluctance. My strong suspicion is that he did so because he realized the problem was not going to be properly addressed until and unless he took a lead on it, forcing (as he later did as pope) the emergence of previously hidden cases concerning such figures as Marcial Maciel.
In my book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power, I return to the earlier Ratzinger and his line of thinking in greater detail, arguing that we do indeed need real structures of local accountability in parishes, dioceses, and regions to relieve Rome of its burdens. But here I want to add to what I wrote there and to offer the following proposal in view of how desperately overburdened Rome is in handling the avalanche of abuse cases that continue to emerge.
In the early Church, disciplinary cases, including those of sexual misconduct, would almost never be referred overseas but instead were handled locally. To prevent a priest from fleeing the consequences and practicing somewhere else there were already by the early fourth century strict canons against jurisdiction-hopping that tied the hands of bishops from accepting clergy who were not given letters dimissorial from their ordinary. They also placed restrictions on how long clergy (bishops included) could be absent from their home, and how long they could be “just visiting” in another jurisdiction, to which they were supposed to have a time-limited invitation in the first place.
Translated to today’s practice, we know that there is in most places some local (diocesan) review of cases. This is necessary but not sufficient, and given the total collapse of trust in churchmen after the McCarrick case, few people think that this process alone can be trusted. Just look at how any attempt at local accountability in the Diocese of Buffalo has melted down, as I argued here, leading to total paralysis.
So we need outside eyes on local cases and their review. But Rome should not be the automatic default set of second eyes, as, according to Winfield, it is currently:
If the bishop finds the claim has a semblance of truth, he sends the documentation to the CDF which tells the bishop how to proceed: via a full-blown canonical trial, a more expedited “administrative” procedure, or something else, including having the CDF itself take over the investigation.
Instead of this arrangement, which has been weak and appears to be getting worse, let us replace the first two options, leaving only the third (CDF takeover) as a rarely used Roman “reserved power” and only in circumstances where the local and regional processes are demonstrably corrupt or irretrievably broken down. Let us follow the ancient practice of local (diocesan) churches having their cases superintended by a local synodal body, and then reviewed by the parallel synodal commission of their geographically neighboring dioceses.
Let us say the Diocese of Gary, Indiana has a case. It assembles the dossier now, but sends it not to Rome but to its neighbor, the Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend. The latter reviews it and gives its best advice to Gary. At that point, the Diocese of Gary can make its decision.
After that, if the accused or victim disagree with the decision, appeal can be made to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which is the “metropolitical” see of Indiana, that is, the more senior jurisdiction whose ancient office has historically been used for precisely these sorts of appeals. After this appeal, if either side is still unsatisfied, final and binding recourse to Rome can be had, thus fulfilling its very ancient role (going back, many scholars think, to 343 and the Council of Serdica) of being an appellate court of final instance, adjudicating only those cases that have proven locally and regionally insoluble.
What about the metropolitan archdiocese itself? Here it could also simply make use of one of its “suffragan” dioceses for initial review, and then one of its neighboring archdioceses for appeal. In the case of Indianapolis, it could send its files for initial review to any of the other four Indiana dioceses, and thereafter on appeal to a nearby archdiocese like Cincinnati or Louisville.
What if those in charge of the local process are themselves accused or otherwise thought or known to be corrupt? How can we know that those reviewing cases locally are trustworthy in the first place? If they are hand-picked by the bishop, and accountable to him alone, we have no such guarantees—but I think we must.
To get around this problem, as I argue in my book, there must be this foundational principle in place: no human being, or group of people, should ever be given a monopoly on power in any organization for any reason. This is always to invite disaster.
So bishops cannot have a monopoly on deciding exclusively how to deal with cases of sexual abuse. Rather, what needs to happen is that the ancient institution of the diocesan synod must be revived. It must be elected annually from the parishes, and it must appoint several of its members (say seven people, only two of whom can be clerics) to form a commission charged exclusively with reviewing all cases and coming up with a proposed course of action. They then send all this to the comparable commission of the neighboring diocese for review, and after this they present the case to the bishop for a decision. The bishop’s decision must then be presented in person and explained in writing. Appeals to the archdiocese, and only lastly to Rome, could happen afterwards if a perpetrator or victim felt that justice was denied.
In this way we cut off an episcopal monopoly on decision-making, we allow a wide range of people responsibility for helping to heal the Church, and we relieve Rome of a burden it never had historically.
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