“Bad” Bishops Are Rarely Punished. Often, They Aren’t Even Allowed to Resign

| Oct 16, 2023 | Catholic Church, Firm News

Bishops and Clergy Corruption Horowitz Law

One would think that when someone’s behavior is found to be dishonest or unforthcoming, they would suffer consequences. What if those dishonest people were clerics? In the old days, when the church had the Inquisition, the church could sentence “bad” clerics to prison, torture, or death. Those days are long gone. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Not only does the Pope refuse to severely punish bishops who have committed or concealed clergy sex crimes, but he refuses even to let complicit bishops resign. 

We at Horowitz Law are not making this up. Several prelates, here in the US and elsewhere, have admitted their wrongdoing and offered to step down. Most of those offers go ignored. More often than not, Pope Francis lets bishops who admit their actions have hurt children, and abuse victims remain on the job with no consequences whatsoever. It’s mind-boggling. 

Belgium Bishop Roger Vangheluwe resigned in 2010 after admitting he abused his nephew. According to The Pillar, “He remains in the priesthood despite repeated attempts by the Belgian bishops to jolt the Vatican into further action. The Vatican has made no public comment on the matter.

Last month, French news media reported that Vatican officials had imposed restrictions on Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard after admitting he had abused a 14-year-old girl. However, according to one news source, “More than two weeks (later), there has been no official confirmation of the restrictions, which could prove highly controversial as they reportedly permit Ricard to exercise public ministry.” You read that right: Ricard admitted sexually violating a 14-year-old. And Pope Francis reportedly is letting Richard “exercise public ministry.” Adding insult to injury, the cardinal reportedly “seems to remain eligible to vote in a future conclave until his 80th birthday in September 2024.”

Note the common denominator here: the word ADMITS or ADMITTED. These are not rumors, suspicions, or allegations. These are not even judicial findings that someone could claim were wrongly decided. (Judges and juries do, after all, sometimes err.) These are bishops acknowledging they had sexually assaulted children. Some abusive or complicit bishops do NOT recognize that they’ve protected predators, hurt children, or done both. Often, one could argue, they don’t have to because investigations have laid out their recklessness, callousness, and deceit in public, in print, and in painful detail. When some of these bishops try to step down, they, too, are usually met with either papal silence or a papal refusal.

Chile: In 2018, all 34 of the country’s bishops offered to step down after a 2300-page report revealed shockingly widespread and long-standing child sex crimes and cover-ups. Francis accepted eight of the offered resignations. Does anyone know why? Of course not. Is the Vatican helping to clear up this uncertainty? Of course not. Two Chilean bishops were defrocked, not for concealing child sex crimes but for committing them.

Germany: In the wake of a 2018 report that uncovered 3,677 cases of clergy sexual abuse, six German prelates offered to resign. This year, the pope accepted the first and only one of these officers, allowing Osnabrueck Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, vice president of the German bishops’ conference, to step down. 

Does anyone know why? Of course not. Is the Vatican helping to clear up this uncertainty? Of course not. As one commentator opined in a Catholic weekly newspaper, “Most people think and say (Bode) drew consequences for his role in the cover-up of sexual abuse. But we might never know the actual reasons for the pope to accept his resignation, as the Vatican typically does not comment on reasons for appointments or resignations.”

In the US, close observers of the crisis may recall that in 2002, the embattled head of the Boston Archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law, told Pope Benedict he wanted to step down. Benedict told him to stay on the job. As the drumbeat of startling revelations of depravity continued unabated, the pontiff reversed course six months later and let Cardinal Law walk away from his post.

More recently, in 2015, Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn resigned after months of protests about his handling of abuse cases and after a judge found him guilty of “failing to report” child sex crimes by one of his priests, Fr. Shawn Ratigan. But was his move because of that controversy and that conviction? Was it a voluntary move, or did Vatican officials force him out? No one knows. Nor, most likely, will anyone ever know. That’s because the Catholic hierarchy continues to say nothing about most bishops’ resignations. Or if they do say something, it’s at best vague and at worst contradictory.

Most recently, Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, stepped down from his post for what he called “purely health reasons.” “The Vatican made the announcement in its daily bulletin on June 27 and did not list a reason for the resignation,” wrote the National Catholic Reporter. But months later, Stika posted a letter he claimed was written by ten cardinals who supposedly support him. The letter strongly suggested that Stika was removed from office and thus “would seem to cast doubt on the bishop’s own accounts of his resignation, which he has attributed to health.” Again, does anyone in the church hierarchy put out even one sentence clarifying the confusion? Nope.

The bottom line: Even when bishops admit they’ve done serious harm, popes often refuse to let them leave. And when bishops do actually resign, popes rarely are honest about the reason. When an institution refuses to discipline, demote, or denounce high-ranking supervisors – even after public admissions or findings of serious wrongdoing, is anyone surprised that serious wrongdoing keeps happening?

Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures and other clergy. If you need a lawyer because a member of a religious organization sexually abused you, contact us today at 888-283-9922 or [email protected] to discuss your options today. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help.