The latest research by BishopAccountability.org gives a global accounting of Catholic bishops who have been accused of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct.
Our list includes 78 bishops worldwide who have been accused publicly of sexual wrongdoing – 53 allegedly abused minors, and 25 are publicly accused of sexual abuse/sexual misconduct with adults only.
In the Catholic abuse crisis, this problem has received little scrutiny. Yet a sexually abusive bishop is exceptionally dangerous. He is not only a perpetrator but, inevitably, an enabler of other sexual criminals. He inflicts harm on both his own victims and the victims of the abusive clerics who find safe harbor in his diocese.
In the Catholic church, “sexual corruption is conferred from the top down – from men in power,” says Richard Sipe, the renowned researcher of celibacy in the priesthood, and author of A Secret World and Celibacy in Crisis.
When a Catholic diocese has been led by a bishop accused of child sex abuse or sexual misconduct, local prosecutors should be alert to the likelihood that the problem is complex and large in scope. And these bishops should be the first cases scrutinized by the new ‘bishop accountability’ tribunal that Pope Francis outlined in June.
A bishop who has his own crimes or other violations of celibacy to conceal is compromised. His decisions are shaped by his need to protect his secret, beginning with the character of the men he accepts to the seminary and the quality of their formation. When one of his priests is accused of sexual assault, a bishop who also has offended is unlikely to punish the priest or to contact law enforcement. In dioceses revealed to have been run by abusers, prosecutors should consider whether criminal RICO laws might apply, wrote attorney and former White House policy advisor Stephen Galebach in a 2004 Washington Post op-ed.
“Until now, prosecutors have been loath to find mens rea, or criminal intent, in any bishop or church leader for aiding and abetting. No matter how serious their malfeasance, surely they did not intend that minors be harmed. But bad has now gone to worse. If a bishop himself has sexually abused minors – as has been alleged by prosecutors in Springfield, Massachusetts, and a number of other places – then one can no longer presume an absence of mens rea when such a bishop harbors or protects other predators,” Galebach wrote.
Indeed, the diocese of Springfield in Massachusetts is an instructive case. Bishop Thomas Dupre resigned in 2004 in response to allegations that he had sexually abused two boys. The local newspaper, The Republican, then examined the resumes of all publicly accused Springfield clerics. More than a third held leadership positions in the diocese “at a time when incidents of sexual abuse were at their highest,” the paper reported.
Bishops who sexually abuse seminarians, as Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell admitted doing, may establish what celibacy expert Richard Sipe calls “a genealogy of abuse,” setting up “a pattern of institutional secrecy.”
Another reason for prosecutors to attend closely to the problem of accused bishops is that the Vatican sometimes has been slow to take action. Some accused bishops have been removed from diocesan leadership posts, but most retain their titles and emeritus status, with all its privileges. To date, as we discuss in our new list, a mere 4 accused bishops have been laicized: Fernando Armindo Lugo Méndez of Paraguay (2008), Raymond J. Lahey of Canada (2012), Gabino Miranda Melgarejo of Peru (2013), and Jósef Wesołowski of Poland (2014).
The case of Wesołowski, the former Polish archbishop and longtime Vatican diplomat, is in the news now and is potentially explosive. He is being tried by the Vatican City State (VCS) – it is that tiny sovereignty’s first criminal case involving sexual crimes. Several young men and boys from the Dominican Republic have come forward alleging that he abused them as minors, and in September 2014, VCS officials found an enormous cache of child abuse images on Wesołowski’s computer. The evidence against him is so overwhelming that the Vatican laicized him last year.
Wesołowski was a papal nuncio, or Vatican ambassador, to six countries in 12 years. Once-confidential church documents show that a key role of the papal nuncio is to funnel incriminating information about abusive priests from the country where he has diplomatic status to the Vatican. Another function is to nominate candidates for bishops.
If Wesołowski is found guilty, it’s horrifying to consider that, in the countries where he served, he may have sabotaged attempts by bishops to report abusers to the Vatican. And it raises concerns about the character of the bishops he has helped select.
The Vatican has been keen to control this case. Let us hope the Vatican exhibits transparency during the trial and that it begins releasing information about other abusive bishops. Most importantly, if the new tribunal announced by the pope is truly to produce a safer Catholic Church – if it really is the beginning of the Pope’s crackdown on sex abusers and their enablers – then the Vatican needs to start aggressively supporting criminal prosecution by local prosecutors of offending church officials in all jurisdictions.