Australian bishops ‘won’t be investigated’ by Vatican until after royal commission

Australian bishops ‘won’t be investigated’ by Vatican until after royal commission

A Vatican tribunal to judge bishops accused of covering up child sex abuse is unlikely to investigate any Australian bishops until after the royal commission has concluded, the church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council says.

The Vatican announced on Wednesday night that it had established a tribunal under its doctrinal arm, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “to judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors”.

Victims’ advocates have for years called for the Vatican to establish clear procedures to make bishops more accountable for abuse in their dioceses, even if they were not directly responsible for it.

The Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has  heard how former Australian Bishop of Ballarat Ronald Mulkearns decided to move serial child sex offender Gerald Ridsdale around churches in Victoria and to a posting in Sydney, where he continued to abuse children. It also heard that Cardinal George Pell, then a priest, was previously a member of the College of Consultors, a group of priests who advised Bishop Mulkearns on such moves.

Francis Sullivan, chief of the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council in Australia, said he “wouldn’t speculate”  on whether the Vatican’s new tribunal would investigate Ronald Mulkearns.

“Usually the way the Vatican works … it won’t work on speculation or on unsubstantiated  claims. It will work on final determinations of courts or commissions of inquiry like the royal commission,” he said.

The commission is expected to conclude its public hearings in early 2017, with a final report due on 15 December of that year.

Mr Sullivan doubted that the Vatican’s tribunal had already started investigating bishops, but believed the work would be accelerated under Pope Francis. Statutes which established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors were only released from the Vatican last month.

The move placed “church leaders around the world and here in Australia on notice that they have a role to do in responding to and preventing child sexual abuse and that if they fail they will be judged and possibly lose their jobs. 

“The Pope has now made it very clear no one within the church will be protected if they have done the wrong thing,” Mr Sullivan said.

The pontifical commission now also had a “duty” to report “allegations of the abuse of office by a bishop connected to the abuse of minors” to the Vatican, he said.

A spokesman for the Vatican has said the complaints against the bishops would initially be investigated by one of three Vatican departments, depending on the jurisdiction under which the bishops fall, before being judged by the doctrinal tribunal.

Nicky Davis, leader of  Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) Australia, said the organisation had been asking church officials to do this since it was established in the United States 26 years ago.

“The most appalling aspect of this announcement is that this move should have been made decades ago, could have saved much suffering and lives lost to suicide, and is treated as something worthy of congratulation.”

Ms Davis said the tribunal was not a complete solution, as it did not have power to investigate church officials involved in covering up abuse who were not bishops: “And it certainly should never replace independent criminal or civil investigations or accountability.”

“I worry that this panel will be used as smokescreen to delay other much-needed changes until the current crop of officeholders are old enough or dead enough to permanently evade responsibility for their actions.”


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