Papal Tribunals

06/15/2015 11:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016


Almost a year ago Sightings explained to readers why this column had devoted so little attention to one of the dramatic religious stories of our time: the abuse of children by Roman Catholic celibate males.

First, news of this abuse received so much attention that it did not need our noticing it and calling it to anyone else's attention. Second, non-Catholics who heaped on the abusers could be accused of enjoying embarrassments to the Church, and making much of that would have violated our self-imposed "Rules of the Game" for interfaith relations.

In the course of time a third factor served as a caution--a question--did the standard coverers of the situation and reports have and share all the facts?

To enlarge on that: we did notice the abuse wrought on children on Indian reservations, and knew that not all the agents of Native American ministries were Catholic. Some poll-takers and ethnographers who keep count of these things started claiming that non-Catholics were as bad as the Catholics. Or worse.

At least that is what Franklin Graham of Samaritan's Purse claimed: the Evangelicals were not better than Catholics. In fact, they were worse.

With all such elements to notice it has seemed best to many of us to wait for changes in the situation. Some reformers of programs and situations have become alert and deserve a new chance. The rise in reports of abuse on many non-Catholic fronts grew incrementally as social media, cameras, and better reporting contributed to change.

Still, was there something experimental or promising and new on the scene?

A partial answer to that question came last mid-week, when all the newspapers and many of the blogs and information resources gave front-page and top-line attention to stories like the NYT piece by Elisabetta Povoledo and Laurie Goodstein (June 10, 2015), which claimed front-page prominence with "Pope Creates Tribunal for Bishop Negligence in Child Sexual Abuse Cases."

Under the headline was news that the Pope has approved the creation of a Vatican Tribunal for judging the bishops and others who covered up abuse. So prominent and accessible is the story that we know we do not need to detail it here.

So we pass it on, not to the oblivion it knew several years ago, or the sectarian bickering over "who's worst," or the "Too-Little-And-Too-Late" prejudgments of victims' rights spokespersons, but to responsible examiners and reporters. As their stories unfold, we can come up with many kinds of questions that correlate to the obvious ones here. We've wondered, and waited for news of new energies.

For instance, the drastic decline in the numbers of priests and religious in Catholicism (and elsewhere): did it lead to some panic among those who had to provide leaders in religious youth organizations--the sacristies, etc., the club meetings where religious parents entrust their children to the presumably safest but actually quite-likely the least trustworthy caretakers. Religious energies and programs, we read often enough, lower their standards and get in trouble in times of decline and demoralization.

Can Pope Francis and thousands of Catholic--and other--personnel recover, emerge, and get back to their vital work, regaining trust? We know that turn-around efforts on lower rungs than those where popes try to regain a footing are led by grieving but often reform-minded leaders who get less notice than do the abusers.

The Church and the larger public are poised for change. Too late?


Marty, Martin E. "GRACE against sex abuse." Sightings, July 28, 2014.

Povoledo, Elisabetta and Laurie Goodstein. "Pope Creates Tribunal for Bishop Negligence in Child Sexual Abuse Cases." New York Times, June 10, 2015, Europe.

Burke, Daniel. "'Sea change' in Catholic sex abuse scandal." CNN, June 10, 2015.

Winfield, Nicole. "Pope Creates Tribunal for Bishop Negligence in Abuse Cases." ABC News, June 10, 2015.

Kirchgaessner, Stephanie. "Vatican tribunal to hear cases of bishops accused of covering up child abuse." The Guardian, June 10, 2015, World.

Boorstein, Michelle and Abby Ohlheiser. "Pope Francis approves new tribunal to judge bishops accused of covering up sex abuse." Washington Post, June 10, 2015, News/Acts of Faith.

Image: Pope Francis I, General Papal Audience at St. Peter's Square, The Vatican, Rome, Italy (June 10, 2015). Source: Rex Features via AP Images.

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School.

NOTE: This article is not available for republication without the consent of Sightings. Please contact the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at