VATICAN CITY—A little-known Vatican appeals panel established by Pope Francis has sharply reduced penalties meted out to priests convicted of sexual abuse under church law in more than a third of the cases that have come before it, drawing criticism from some bishops who favor a harder line.
The pontiff has promised a policy of zero tolerance against sex abuse, and critics say the decisions of the panel, composed of eight cardinals and bishops, undermine that message. In some instances, the panel has reinstated clerics expelled from the priesthood by other church authorities.
At a June 2017 meeting of top Vatican officials, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston complained about what he considered the panel’s excessive leniency, according to people familiar with the matter. And tensions over the issue have mounted since, those people said.
At the 2017 meeting:
“If this gets out, it will cause a scandal,” Cardinal O’Malley told Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, in effect the pope’s prime minister, and other Vatican officials, according to a person present. No action was taken to address the issue.
The Catholic Church’s handling of the long-running crisis over clerical sex abuse has exposed fissures within its hierarchy. Activists and some church leaders hoped the Vatican would take a tougher stance on abuse under Pope Francis—and thought a meeting next week at a global summit of bishops would make progress toward that goal.
Instead, the opposite has happened, deepening the gap between the Vatican and U.S. church leaders, who have pushed for a more stringent response. No clearer is the rift than in the relationship between Pope Francis and Cardinal O’Malley, a bearded Capuchin friar who likes to be called “Cardinal Sean.”
Now Cardinal Sean is on outside looking in:
The Boston cardinal’s influence has declined to the point where, in November, the pope excluded him from the organizing committee of next week’s summit, which had been Cardinal O’Malley’s idea.
A spokesman for the Vatican declined to comment.
Quite a souring of a once warm relationship:
Cardinal O’Malley “should be nominated for the Nobel Prize for common sense,” Cardinal Bergoglio told a mutual acquaintance in 2010.
That year, the American paid him a visit in Buenos Aires. In a meeting room adorned with portraits of past cardinals, down a hall from Cardinal Bergoglio’s spartan quarters, the two men surveyed church and local politics around Latin America, according to a witness.
Francis once endorsed what he considered O’Malley’s common sense zero-tolerance prescription. No more. It’s a grim situation that has the once-favored Franciscan now ignored. What is Francis thinking of?