Prominent researchers of accountability for clergy sexual abuse called on Pope Francis on Wednesday to release the names of bishops investigated by the Vatican since the implementation of 2019 rules that overhauled how the church responds to abuse accusations.
The watchdog group, BishopAccountability.org, criticized the pope at a news conference for failing to give a “full accounting” of the impact of the revised rules, which they called a landmark effort to combat abuse. The organization also released a list, based on news reports from around the world, of 40 bishops who have been investigated under the four-year-old law.
“The pope has repeatedly said he wants transparency, yet he is leaving the faithful in the dark,” Anne Barrett Doyle, the group’s co-director, told reporters Wednesday. “Survivors and Catholics in the pews not only need this information; they have a right to it.”
In a letter to Francis, the organization urged him to answer “the faithful’s yearning for accountability” by releasing a detailed list of church officials investigated for alleged abuse or for mishandling abuse claims that were brought to them. The rules, implemented in June 2019, devised a way for bishops to help police their own ranks, among other changes, and were the first significant step toward formalizing a process for investigating abuse allegations in the church.
U.S. advocates have pushed for decades for more transparency around sex abuse cases, contending that the church’s steps toward accountability – creating lists of accused clerics, spending millions to implement new child-protection protocols and toughening the Vatican’s punishments for abuse – have not gone far enough. This week, Maryland’s attorney general is expected to release a redacted version of a grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Advocates have particularly criticized a lack of robust accountability for bishops, who typically oversee dioceses. Of the 40 bishops on Bishop Accountability’s list of accused clerics, the group said fewer than half have been disciplined.
Barrett Doyle said her group was releasing a list because the Vatican had not published one. She urged Francis to release not only a full, international accounting of names of investigated bishops, but also the allegations against them and the status of each case.
“How many complicit bishops are still leading dioceses?” she asked. “How many religious orders are run by credibly accused predators?”
Bishop Accountability’s list included 13 U.S. bishops, all of whose names had been reported previously, who have been accused of committing abuse or of mishandling allegations brought to them. Two – Bishop Joseph Binzer of Cincinnati and Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, Minn. – resigned, and three have been cleared. The remaining cases are ongoing, or their outcomes are unknown.
Even when U.S. bishops have been penalized, Barrett Doyle said, the consequences have been too light. Binzer resigned in 2020 after failing to report misconduct allegations against a priest in his diocese, but he later became the pastor at two parishes. Hoeppner stepped down in 2021, after an investigation into allegations that he mishandled abuse cases, but was allowed to say a send-off Mass. Neither he nor Binzer lost their titles as bishops.
Francis has not stripped any bishops of their priesthood since he defrocked ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, in 2019 after credible allegations of sexual misconduct.
Francis has acknowledged in recent months that the church has not solved the abuse crisis. He told the Associated Press in January that the church still needed to be more transparent and that its leaders should talk more about abuse of vulnerable adults.
“It’s what I want,” he said. “And with transparency comes a very nice thing, which is shame. Shame is a grace.”
Francis, perceived as an outsider, inspired tremendous hope for change after assuming the papacy in 2013. A decade later, he has a mixed record on responding to abuse and has at times perpetuated a pattern of secrecy around the topic.
His signature anti-abuse measure, the 2019 law, has failed to have a significant impact, Barrett Doyle said. She criticized Francis for not requiring clerics notified of abuse to report the allegations to civil authorities and contended that the rules were set up to maintain the Vatican’s control over these cases.
“It is self-policing packaged as accountability,” Barrett Doyle said. “It is bishops watching bishops.”