As news spread Tuesday that Bishop Robert W. Finn had resigned as leader of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the vast majority of observers viewed the development as a direct result of the diocese’s recent sexual abuse issues — and Finn’s 2012 misdemeanor conviction for failing to report sexual abuses by a priest.
In truth, however, the Catholic church did not provide an official reason for Finn’s resignation, and that lack of transparency — in the minds of some — has left the situation far too open-ended.
“We don’t know exactly how the Vatican reached this conclusion,” said the Rev. James Connell, a priest and canon lawyer in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who pushed for Finn’s ouster over the sex abuse scandal. “There’s a need for the Vatican to explain the procedure that was involved.
“Unless there’s a health problem nobody knows about, I suspect that what happened here is they said: ‘We’re going to have to let you go; there’s grave cause why you can’t fulfill your office,’” he added. “…But we need to know that.”
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As of Tuesday, the Vatican had revealed only that Finn tendered his resignation under the umbrella of a church law allowing bishops to resign early for illness or “some other grave cause” that leaves them unable to fulfill the office.
That prompted some to call for more details, insisting that a thorough explanation of the process and what led up to it would not only ease parishioner concerns, but also serve as a prime opportunity for Pope Francis, now in his third year as pontiff, to prove that child sexual abuse will not be tolerated within the church.
“What no pope has done to date is publicly confirm that he removed a culpable bishop because of his failure to make children’s safety his first priority,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a group that tracks abuses in the Catholic church. “We urge Pope Francis to issue such a statement immediately. That … would send a bracing message to bishops and religious superiors worldwide that a new era has begun.”
Even after extensive calls for reform, transparency within the church has remained a consistent issue, Connell said.
He points to the lack of oversight in ensuring that reports of clergy sexual abuse that are required to be sent to Rome actually get to Rome. Additionally, he points to the findings of a recently released report by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops regarding the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
In it, the outside auditing firm charged with reviewing the church — Rochester, N.Y.-based StoneBridge Business Partners — found that “as in prior years, most dioceses and all eparchies opted not to have StoneBridge conduct parish audits or surveys.”
Those familiar with the Vatican, meanwhile, expressed little surprise at the limited scope of information regarding Finn’s resignation.
“Should they be releasing more information? Objectively, the answer is yes,” said Jason Berry, author of the book “Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.”
“But that’s not the mindset. Bishops are essentially functioning as the royalty of the church, and when a scandal swamps someone, unless he himself has personally committed acts of abuse, which is not the case with Finn, they try to use the soft glove and get him out as quickly and quietly as possible.”
In that respect, the Catholic church isn’t dissimilar to other high-profile institutions, said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior analyst with the National Catholic Reporter and author of the book “Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.”
There’s the usual reluctance to release potentially damaging publicity, Reese said. What’s more, publishing embarrassing material about a bishop could make it more difficult for the church to push a bishop out in the future, he said. All would fear being publicly shamed.
“This is typical of the way the Vatican works,” said Reese. “It doesn’t like to explain things. It hopes that people will just be satisfied with the fact that they got rid of him.”
Based on the reaction Tuesday, however, not everyone is.
Connell, for instance, believes that Finn’s resignation could serve as an integral teaching moment — a chance to prove that this is indeed a new era for the church.
“There’s survivors, victims, and they’ve got questions,” Connell said. “They want to know things. People in the pews want to know things. And society at large wants to know things.
“And I would hope that Pope Francis and the Vatican would help to bring to light more information.”