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Relieving Rome’s burdens: A proposal for handling abuse cases

How to cut off an episcopal monopoly on decision-making, allow a wide range of people responsibility for helping to heal the Church, and relieve Rome of a burden it never had historically.

View from the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, looking over the Vatican's Saint Peter's Square and out into Rome. (Wikipedia)

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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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. Dear Mr. DeVille:

    Your 6th paragraph poses a diverting question that can be understood (or should think perhaps misunderstood?) as an accusation against Benedict XVI for “asserting (central) control over sex abuse investigations in the CDF, when he was head of the CDF.

    I have read your book “Everything Hidden…” and understand your proposal about diocesan synods.

    Setting your idea aside, you ought to avoid floating misleading questions about Joseph Ratzinger and investigating sex abuse as head of the CDF.

    Here are some questions and answers that I pose to lead us back to the light of the facts, and away from the very misleading detour on which your essay relies.

    Q1: Was sex abuse investigation centralized in the Vatican by Ratzinger as head of the CDF?

    A1: No.

    Q2: If not, who had the central control of sex abuse investigations in the Vatican before the task was given to the CDF during the papacy of John Paul II?

    A2: The Vatican Secretary of State, under the corrupt Cardinal Sodano, accused of being on the payroll of the sociopath sex abuser and fraud Marcel Maciel, head of The I’ll-begotten Legion of Christ.

    Q3: Was the CDF under Ratzinger in a position to assert authority over the Secretary of State and take control of sex abuse investigations away from Cardinal Sodano.

    A3: No, because in the 1970s, under Pope Paul VI, the Church demoted the Congregation for the Faith, which was for centuries the most senior Congregation, and elevated the Secretary of State as the most important Congregation (seeming to place world affairs as more important than faith itself).

    Q4: How then did control over sex abuse investigations get given to the CDF under Ratzinger?

    A4: Pope John Paul II took the authority away from the Secretary of State under Sodano, and gave it to the CDF, because lit became obvious that the Vatican Secretary of State was covering up and killing sexual abuse investigations, leading to the worldwide crisis we all now suffer for.

    Q5: What happened after Ratzinger (followed by Mueller when R became Pope B16) and the CDF took control of sex abuse investigations?

    A5: CDF brought Maciel to justice and removed him. It started investigating and laicizing sex abusing priests and bishops by the hundreds. It helped B16 call for the resignation of several Irish bishops in one stroke.

    Q6: What happened as a result of CDF, under JP2 and then B16 treating sex abuse like a serious crime?

    A6: Church “progressives” like Cardinals McCarrick and Danneels and Bergoglio were affronted, and confected the lie that “Pope Benedict couldn’t handle the sex abuse crisis.” That lie was told in those very words by priests in the pulpit and bishops on TV, to undermine the serious investigation of sex abuse.

    A7: What did “progressive Bishops and Cardinals” and the progressive Pontiff Francis do after they underhandedly elected Cardinal Bergoglio as Pontiff?

    A8: They had Bergoglio fire serious investigators from the CDF staff, sieze abuse investigations away from the CDF, and gave it back to the utterly corrup Secretary of State Mafia, now controlled by the amoral and corrupt Cardinal Parolin, and began restoring sex abusers and coverup artists to power in the Church, including Danneels, who went to work on “the family Synod,” just 3 years after being retired in disgrace under B16, having been exposed by the Belgian press for covering up homosexual pedophilia abuse by Bishop Vangelhuwe; and McCarrick, who went to work on the secret China Accord for the repulsive Cardinal Parolin, betraying the underground Church in China; and overturning CDF investigations and B16 sentences against homosexual predator pedophiles like Mauro Inzoli, restoring them to priestly faculties and overturning justice.

    Summing it up, the process you suggest is undermined by your misleading question in paragraph 6?

    I actually agree with blasting open the administration of justice and finances in the Catholic Church.

    Obviously, I don’t appreciate your unfortunate question in paragraph 6.

    Our Church is infested with men like McCarrick and Parolin and the Pontiff Francis who are working to magnify secrecy and central control and thwart justice, under the infantalizing and now reinforced might of the corrupt Secretary of State.

    That is the powerful “counterfeit Church” that seized control in the conclave 2013, and these men are the enemies of The Body of Christ.

    Your solution about diocesan synods “might work.” It will ever work until the day when the Catholic Church restores the Congregation for the Faith as the prime Congregation, and demotes The Secretary of State to its proper and subordinate function, so that God, and not Mammon, are once again the most important things motivating our Catholic Church leadership.

    • EXCELLENT!! Thank you so much, Chris In Maryland, for your detailed, factual, easily verifiable Truth that should be read by every Catholic on this Earth! So coincidentally (God-incidence instead of coincidence) that I commented here yesterday on watching out for educated Catholics with reputable backgrounds, “degrees and pedigrees”, etc. that willingly or unwillingly may lead us astray of the Truth (which I called the side to opposite side “Bergoglio Tango”).

      It is Jesus-Truth who reveals those things that are hidden, disguised, distorted and falsely sanctified by the Homosexual Culture of Lust, Power and Death, which is obvious everywhere and entrenched now at the Vatican. They are “compassionately” disconnecting us from reality and declaring insanity and sin as “holy”.

      No one, no matter how dear to us, how reputable, how apparently holy, or of high rank, should ever be held in our True Catholic Church as an Untouchable Sacred Cow when they stray, from the Pope down. NO ONE!! We totally confuse charity with being naïve, and being naïve is killing us. Like you just did so magnificently, our Catholic renewal will come only by Jesus-Truth and by exposing the repulsive underside of the new-and-improved-falsely-compassionate-false-catholic-church!! (Luke 12:2)

  2. Dr. Deville’s article has great merit. However it leaves out the responsibility to inform local law enforcement of the possibility of a crime. Do you understand that in nearly all cases there is the potential for civil conviction of a crime. It might be that the greatest deterant to future actions would be the threat of criminal conviction and it’s results. Until we realize this the church will be seen as a protector of the offender.

    • Well Mr. Jenkins, that would be great if you’re dealing with law enforcement in, say, the US, Canada, the UK or Sweden. Not so good if you’re dealing with Somalia, Libya or Sudan. (How easily we forget that the whole world is not us/US.)

  3. All of these structural reforms might be needed and certainly can be part of the solution. However, McCarrick and Cardinal were metropolitan bishops. Cardinal Cupich is a metropolitan bishop. Archbishop Gregory is a metropolitan bishop. And the list goes on. Until these evil and wicked liars either have a conversion or are removed, any changes will yield little change.

  4. A couple questions: “…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.”

    How does this apply to the pope? Should it apply to the pope? Where is the balancing of power which could address the misbehavior, of any sort, of a corrupt pope? At least in the case of lower clerics there was always the possibility of the civil power stepping in, though that was even prevented at some times by the idea that any discipline of a cleric needed to be done only by church courts and not in civil courts. But since the pope is a head of state, there is no such civil power which theoretically applies.

  5. Interesting that Prof. Deville would seem to suggest that a “revived” (does he mean revived from Christian antiquity?) diocesan synod would include (voting?) laity. If this is his meaning, then I’d be highly interested to know whence he derives this proposal, historically speaking. To my knowledge, ancient synods (whether diocesan, provincial or ecumenical)–if that is what he means–did not have lay members, except in the last instance when the Emperor (sort-of) represented the lay faithful. If not, what “diocesan synods” is he referring to. Not Catholic ones and not even (until modern times) Orthodox ones.

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