Thursday, March 2, 2017

On the Vatican’s Conflict of Interest Regarding Accountability on Sex-Abuse

Integrity is arguably essential to the credibility of religious functionaries—even and especially those with considerable organizational power. So it was significant that Marie Collins, whom Pope Francis had appointed to the Vatican’s commission on sexual abuse by clergy and herself had been a victim of such abuse, resigned on March 1, 2017 due to “fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.”[1] Notably, the commission suspended Peter Saunders a year before, “after he accused the panel of failing to deliver on its promises of reform and accountability” even including recommendations that the Pope had approved.[2] What is the basis of the problem? I submit that the conflict of interest that is inherent in having the clergy of a religious organization hold each other accountable is, much like industry self-regulation, culpable in this case.
For example, “a tribunal to hold negligent bishops accountable recommended by the commission and approved by the Pope in June 2015 was never implemented,” Marie Collins said in March, 2017.[3] She had no idea whether guidelines issued by the Pope to discipline bishops who had covered up abuse were in force. The Vatican also refused to give the commission an office and staff, and a “Vatican department was refusing to cooperate with a recommendation that all correspondence from victims of clerical abuse receive a response.”[4] The abuse could sadly have been too widespread, in which case the roadblocks in the Vatican are particularly damning.
The integrity and related credibility of the Roman Catholic Church was on the line. “I find it impossible to listen to public statements about the deep concern in the church for the care of those whose lives have been blighted by abuse, yet to watch privately as a congregation in the Vatican refuses to even acknowledge their letters!,” she said. Moreover, the “reluctance of some in the Vatican Curia to implement recommendations or cooperate with the work of a commission when the purpose is to improve the safety of children and vulnerable adults around the world is unacceptable,” she added.[5] The Pope himself had lessened punishments for some pedophile priests—one of whom would be convicted by an Italian court for “sex crimes against children as young as 12.”[6]
To be sure, Marie Collins did admit, “The pope does at heart understand the horror of abuse and the need for those who would hurt minors to be stopped.”[7] Yet that administrative clergy at the Vatican were ignoring his decisions on recommendations points to an institutional problem—that of a conflict of interest in having clergy police themselves. That the sexual abuse could become so widespread as to compromise the very credibility of the Roman Catholic Church suggests that the Vatican’s Curia, or government, was not in an intra-clergy accountability mode. In other words, we cannot expect a tight-knit club to self-regulate. In this case, the sense of brotherhood among the clergy is too strong; hierarchical distinctions and the related power differential is no match.
The implication is that the governments of countries should take more of a role in policing priests. Rather than viewing them as organizational functionaries tied to a Roman jurisdiction, they should be viewed as residents of the country in which they live. Society should not expect the Vatican to come down on its own. Moreover, no religious organization can realistically meet this expectation. In other words, the world has been asking too much of the Vatican. That Bishop Law of Boston, for example, was given a plush appointment in the Vatican after being forced out of his bishopric in disgrace is just one indication that the sort of accountability that Marie Collins and Peter Saunders would not happen inside the Vatican—the clergy's own answer, in other words, was no. It is unrealistic to force people in power to do something they simply refuse to do; external means are needed in such a case. Actions speak louder than words, and through its non-actions the Vatican itself had spoken. This is not to say that it cannot or should not be blamed. In fact, we should expect that its integrity and thus credibility rightfully take a hit, but unfortunately what is right often does not materialize, even from the pews.

[1] Elisabetta Povoledo and Gaia Pianigiani, “Abuse Victim Quits Vatican Commission, Citing ‘Resistance’,” The New York Times, March 1, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.