Yesterday, it was reported  that Pope Francis is working on a document to regularize procedures for handling allegations against bishops of sexual abuse or negligence in handling sexual abuse cases. It’s not clear if or how the new document would alter the motu proprio the Holy Father issued back in June 2016 under the title, Come una madre amorevole (Like a loving mother).
The latter document underlined and clarified the “grave reasons” for which a bishop might be removed from ecclesiastical office, particularly as regards negligence in handling the abuse of minors. It stipulated that a bishop could be removed for negligence “even without serious moral fault on his part.” The document also called for a “College of Jurists” – an assemblage of canonists – to assist the Holy Father in determining whether, and how, to affirm the findings of the Apostolic Tribunal, which actually tries the canonical case.
Take, for example, the instance of Archbishop Anthony Apuron in Guam. Apuron was convicted in a canonical trial of “delicts against the Sixth Commandment with minors.” His appeal failed, and the Apostolic Tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval and authority of the Holy Father, handed down a final sentence, which was announced last week: Apuron has been removed from office of Archbishop, forbidden to wear the insignia of his rank as a bishop, and prohibited from living in the Archdiocese of Agaña. Notably – and unlike the recent case of Theodore McCarrick – Apuron was not removed from the clerical state.
It is not immediately clear why one bishop convicted of abusing minors (Apuron) is allowed to remain in the clerical state while another (Theodore McCarrick) was laicized. In some regards, the cases were similar – both involved the sexual abuse of minors – but McCarrick was also found guilty of solicitation in the Confessional, a grave offense in its own right. Different crimes; different sentences.
But the differences don’t just boil down to some sort of pontifical sentencing guidelines. Pope Francis has been resistant to one-size-fits-all mechanisms for dealing with problem bishops, an approach which, in theory at least, allows for remedies to be tailored to fit the particular offense, but also to be tailored to the particular cultural, social, and political exigencies of each case. The College of Jurists laid out in Come una madre amorevole helps him do this, and he can select different jurists for different cases.
In fact, Pope Francis described the process, and how he finds it helpful, in a papal press conference  last summer as he was returning from Dublin – a press conference remembered mostly for his memorable response to questions about the just-published Viganò testimony. Pope Francis used the Apuron case, which was then pending appeal, as an example:
The latest [case] is that of Guam, the Archbishop of Guam, who appealed. And, I decided – because it’s a very difficult case – to take the privilege that I have of taking on the appeal myself and not sending it to the council of appeal that does its work with all the priests. I took it upon myself. And made a commission of canonists that are helping me and they told me that when I get back, after a maximum of a month, a recommendation will be made so I can make a judgment. It is a complicated case, on one hand, but not difficult because the evidence is clear. I cannot pre-judge, I await the report and then I will judge. I say that the evidence is clear because there is this evidence which led the first tribunal to the condemnation.
There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to this sort of process. On the one hand, it can be highly tailored to the needs of the case, as we’ve already seen. But there is a real downside as well. By taking personal responsibility for assembling the team of jurists on whose advice he will rely for a given case, Pope Francis makes himself personally responsible for the outcome of the cases – and for how the handling of each case is perceived by the faithful.
The impartiality of law is not the same as the embrace of a loving mother, a point the pope is eager to emphasize. But there’s also a very good reason we generally don’t allow mothers to preside over the criminal trials of their sons. Put more starkly: one of the reasons the Church has found itself in this crisis is surely that too many bishops showed too much paternal deference to their wayward priests, and not enough disinterested judgment about the heinous crimes in question. This was not always – or perhaps even often – the result of malice or bad intent. It’s easy to see how it could be the result of precisely the opposite.
One need not question the judgment of the pope (this one, or any other) to realize the dangers inherent in so personalized a judicial process.
Nor is this an abstract concern. Pope Francis made a terrible mistake, for which he apologized, in defending Bishop Juan Barros in Chile even to the point of denouncing Barros’ accusers.
And then there is the case of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, one of Pope Francis’ first episcopal appointments. Zanchetta was removed from his diocese in Argentina after a variety of complaints – including complaints that gay pornography was found on Zanchetta’s phone – and brought to Rome by Francis. The pope may see this as bringing a wayward son home where he can be under closer supervision from a father who loves him.
Others see it, shall we say, differently.
Pope Francis is right to be wary of legalistic and bureaucratic “remedies” to what is fundamentally a spiritual and moral crisis. But given everything we know about how episcopal and priestly malfeasance has been handled – or rather, mishandled – in recent decades, there is reason to wonder whether Pope Francis’ highly personal, even ad hoc, pastoral approach to wayward bishops is the most prudent model for the Church today. Time will tell.