No doubt about it, the Vatican’s latest missive has laid an egg. Styled as an encyclical to assist national bishops conferences in developing guidelines for dealing with clergy accused of sexual abuse, the letter utterly ignores what everybody outside the Church hierarchy itself acknowledges to be the central problem: the bishops themselves.

Take Philadelphia, please. The U.S. bishops conference didn’t merely have guidelines, it had Vatican-approved norms–which were ignored by Cardinal Justin Rigali and his henchmen. As for the archdiocesan review board, tasked with reviewing all cases, it was kept in the dark and then used to provide cover for episcopal misbehavior, according to its chair, Ana Maria Catanzano. That’s the problem in a nutshell.

Always eager to safeguard its prerogatives, the Vatican insists that if the conferences want to go beyond guidelines and actually establish “binding norms,” then “it will be necessary to request the recognitio from the competent Dicasteries of the Roman Curia.”  OK, let’s go with that.

To deal with the problem of recalcitrant bishops, the conferences should be obliged to establish binding norms, which norms must include a zero tolerance policy for bishops, comparable to the American zero tolerance policy for priests. That is to say, if there is credible evidence that a bishop has covered up a case of clerical sexual abuse, he will be suspended from office by Rome, and removed if the case is proved. Assuming Rome wants to get the bishops’ attention, that’s the two-by-four that would get it.

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