Pope Francis’ new system to evaluate allegations of sexual abuse or cover-up against individual Catholic bishops, which went into effect in June 2019, is admirable. For the first time in millennia — quite literally — there is an active process in place to hold prelates accountable should they fail in their duty to protect children or vulnerable adults from clerical predators.
But after two years, it is clear that the process — which involves the Vatican empowering archbishops to conduct investigations as necessary in their local regions under the norms of the papal motu propio letter Vos Estis Lux Mundi — requires significant improvement.
First on the docket should be a substantial increase in transparency about which bishops are being investigated, what the accusations being brought forward involve, and who exactly is doing the investigating.
Second up is something that, three decades into the church’s continuing abuse crisis, many would have reasonably thought the Vatican should have understood by now: lay experts must be involved in all investigations.
Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming, has had up-close experience with both issues. Soon after being appointed to lead his diocese in 2017, Biegler reopened an investigation into allegations of abuse against one of his predecessors, Joseph Hart.
As correspondent Christopher White reports, Biegler’s investigation, led by a lawyer experienced in abuse cases, found the claims against Hart “credible and substantiated.” But after Biegler forwarded the issue to Rome, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith determined, without the help of any outside experts, that the allegations against Hart could not be proven.