By Rev. Michael X., J.C.L.
The colloquialism, "getting away with murder," is defined by one leading dictionary as meaning, "To escape punishment for or detection of an egregiously blameworthy act." That is precisely what the bishops have been able to do all these decades by covering up sexual abuse committed by priests: evade prosecution under canon law for their own terribly reprehensible deeds of abuse of power and grave negligence in their office.
While, in 2001, the statute of limitations for prosecuting minors was extended from three to 20 years, nothing has changed regarding bishops.
The current canon law on what is called prescription, akin to what is called in common law the "statute of limitations," for prosecuting bishops is mind-bogglingly only three years. The Code of Canon Law (CIC) states:
Can. 1362 – §1. Prescription extinguishes a criminal action after three years unless it concerns:
1° delicts reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith;
2° an action arising from the delicts mentioned in cann. 1394, 1395, 1397, and 1398, which have a prescription of five years;
3° delicts which are not punished in the common law if particular law has established another period for prescription.
§2. Prescription runs from the day on which the delict was committed or, if the delict is continuous or habitual, from the day on which it ceased.
Can. 1363 – §1. Prescription extinguishes an action to execute a penalty if the offender is not notified of the executive decree of the judge mentioned in can. 1651 within the time limits mentioned in can. 1362; these limits are to be computed from the day on which the condemnatory sentence became a res iudicata.
As abuse of power and grave negligence with injury constitute canonical crimes according to can. 1389, §§ 1–2 CIC, this means that the Church, under current legislation, only has three years to prosecute evil bishops for their misdeeds.
The argument could and should be made by Church prosecutors that the crime of covering up sexual abuse of minors by priests has not ceased, therefore bishops can be punished under current law for old crimes. However, Cdl. Donald Wuerl's canon lawyer would most likely successfully argue that his client's failings were "time-barred" within three years of any alleged failings on the former bishop of Pittsburgh's part. This is because the ancient law governing the punishment of Catholics must always be interpreted restrictively according to can. 18.
What options do lay Catholics have for seeing malevolent or negligent bishops prosecuted under canon law? For one, they can begin campaigning for the Church to extend the canonical statute of limitations for prosecuting bishops from the current three-year time limit to 20 years. That way, the gravity of sexual abuse of minors can be equated in gravity with the crimes of bishops who have enabled the abusers, since the Church currently has 20 years to prosecute sexual abuse of minors.
Secondly, Pope Francis and Vatican officials can begin matching their words with deeds by starting to prosecute bishops according to can. 1389 for having abused their power to cover up sexual abuse. Doing so has been rendered all the more easy by publication of his "Letter to the People of God," where Francis explicitly used the term "abuse of power" in reference to the crimes of sexual abuse of minors committed by clerics.
Bottom line: The sexual abuse of minors and the cover-up by bishops of these heinous crimes committed by priests will never ever be eliminated unless 1) the Church extends the canonical statute of limitations to prosecute the crimes of abuse of power and negligence with injury; and 2) the Vatican begins prosecuting and publicly announcing the holding of criminal canonical trials of, bishops for their decades-long violation of can. 1389.
Failure on the part of the Pope to extend the time period for such prosecution would constitute in and of itself an act of grave negligence on his part.