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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Vatican panel has come under criticism for sharply reducing penalties imposed on one third of clergy who have appealed their cases.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the panel, headed by Abp. Charles Scicluna of Malta, has rejected recommendations to defrock at least 15 sex abusers, instead reducing their punishments to temporary suspensions ranging from 3–5 years. The clergy come from various countries, including Mexico, Peru and Francis' former country of Argentina.
Established by Pope Francis in 2015, the panel — made up of eight bishops and cardinals — operates within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and hears appeals from clergy accused of sexual misconduct.
Formerly, such appeals were heard before the full Congregation, consisting of approximately two dozen prelates, and were rarely successful. Now, about one third of cases on appeal succeed in getting an abuser's penalty diminished, or thrown out altogether.
A case involving a Polish priest ended up with a complete reversal of the ruling, the panel finding that there existed no "moral certitude" that the priest committed abuse, even in the face of newly presented evidence of guilt. Other cases have involved restoring priests to active ministry who had been previously removed for sexual misconduct.
Another case resulted in halting the laicization of an Ecuadorian priest found guilty of abusing around a dozen boys aged 10–14. The priest blamed "mental illness" for his conduct, and the panel ordered a psychological test before proceeding with any suspension. Pope Francis intervened, ordering that the priest be removed from ministry immediately.
And the panel gave what amounted to a slap on the wrist to Abp. Anthony Apuron of Guam, accused by multiple altar boys of sex abuse. Earlier this year, the panel found him guilty of "unspecified crimes," and instead of removing him from ministry, restricting his movements and relegating him to a life of prayer and penance, as is usually the case with guilty clerics, the panel recommended merely that he not return to Guam — a mild rebuke that amounts essentially to early retirement.
In June last year, Cdl. Sean O'Malley of Boston, head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, criticized the panel's actions, and "tensions over the issue have mounted since," according to sources who spoke with The Wall Street Journal. Various other bishops have also complained to the Vatican about the reduced sentences, noting that they contradict Pope Francis' supposed zero-tolerance policy toward sex abuse.
Francis himself has come under fire for showing leniency toward sex abusers, forced to admit his error and apologize in at least two cases.
In 2014, the pontiff reduced the sentence of a priest, Msgr. Mauro Inzoli, whom the CDF had ordered to be defrocked after it found him guilty of abusing multiple boys aged 12–16. Pope Francis reversed the decision, allowing Inzoli to remain a priest, although restricting his movements.
Inzoli was later found guilty in Italian criminal court of molesting five teen boys (evidence revealed the number was far higher, but the cases were barred by the statute of limitations) and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. Francis reinstated the CDF's original order to laicize Inzoli and issued an apology.
A 2017 Associated Press article notes that the pope's actions here were not unique:
The Inzoli case is one of several in which Francis overruled the advice of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and reduced a sentence that called for the priest to be defrocked, two canon lawyers and a church official told AP. Instead, the priests were sentenced to penalties including a lifetime of penance and prayer and removal from public ministry.
The well-known case of Chilean Bp. Juan Barros was considered the worst crisis of Francis' pontificate. In spite of multiple allegations of sex abuse cover-up, the pontiff appointed Barros to the diocese of Osorno, Chile, leading to many months of protests by laity, who accused him of protecting homosexual predator Fr. Fernando Karadima.
The pope claimed the victims were spreading calumny and gossip, leading to Cdl. O'Malley's criticism of Francis' remarks. After public outcry, the pope issued an apology to sex abuse survivors for his comments.
He was forced to apologize again when credible evidence surfaced that not only did Karadima abuse multiple teen males, but Barros knew about it and in some cases even witnessed it. Barros was removed from the diocese.
In addition to Pope Francis' well-documented actions protecting a convicted pederast in Argentina, his continued protection of Cdl. Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who covered up for the sex abuse and embezzlement of Bp. Juan Pineda, is also a source of continuing criticism for the pontiff.
Nicknamed the "Vice Pope" for his level of power and influence in Rome, Maradiaga heads the pope's council of cardinal advisors (the Gang of Nine, recently reduced to six). Pineda, long considered Maradiaga's right-hand man in the archdiocese of Tegucigalpa in Honduras, was removed in July over credible accusations of homosexual assault of seminarians, as well as financial mismanagement.
Although this evidence, including Maradiaga's own complicity, were revealed in a 2017 Vatican investigation, Pope Francis sat on the report for a year, leading to multiple questions from the public regarding his inaction.
It wasn't until Martha Alegría Reichmann, a longtime friend of Maradiaga, went to the press that the pontiff finally accepted Pineda's resignation.
Reichmann said of Maradiaga in June, "Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga knows everything his right hand does, Auxiliary Bishop Juan Pineda, but he has always covered and protected him."
Maradiaga remains head of his archdiocese, and continues to lead the pope's council of cardinal advisors.