As discussed here, the Vatican is making the claim that bishops aren't employees. This, they claim, means they are not legally liable for the failure of some bishops to protect children from abusive priests. It's a claim many find absurd on its face.
"The church isn't some loosely-knit hippie commune with diffuse authority," said Barbara Dorris, outreach director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It's an ancient, rigid, crystal-clear hierarchy in which bishops ordain, transfer and supervise priests and in which the pope selects, transfers and supervises bishops."
The realities in terms of canon law may be more complex than such appearances imply and law and justice sometimes seem little more than distant cousins. It is by no means a given that the courts will decide in favor of abuse survivors attempting to sue the Vatican.
"The bishop exercises this authority in his own name, not as the vicar of the pope," writes the Rev. James A. Coriden in "An Introduction to Canon Law."
Yet Coriden admits that the pope is "much more than a first among equals" in the worldwide College of Bishops.
"(The doctrine of) primacy gives the pope the power to intervene in the life of the local church when exceptional circumstances make it necessary," Coriden writes. "In this sense it implies a `reserve power' to be used in emergency situations." As the Rev. Thomas J. Reese notes in his book "Inside the Vatican," canon law requires bishops to obtain the Vatican's permission before making certain decisions, such as selling or ceding diocesan property valued at $3 million or more.
The Vatican also seems to undercut its case when it gives direct guidance on the handling of abuse cases as it did in a recent posting of guidelines. On the one hand, the Vatican seems to want credit for Pope Benedict's relatively aggressive stand on clerical abuse and on the other, wants to disown criminally negligent bishops like so many bastard children. Worse, the failings of many of those bishops may owe directly to decades of, at best, mixed messages from the Vatican. In other words, the Vatican seems to be passing off as a lack of direct authority its total failure to lead on this critical problem.
And as I said before, it seems to come down to priorities. The Vatican pulls rank when it thinks it matters. It can intervene in "emergency situations" but apparently did not deem priests raping children an emergency. So what constitutes an emergency? Uppity nuns.
They've taught legions of Detroit-area Catholics. They've taken on major corporations. They are watchdog nuns who have urged U.S. companies to be socially responsible.
But to the Vatican, the Adrian Dominican congregation of 850 progressive nuns may be a problem, especially under the conservative papacy of Pope Benedict XVI.
For five days this spring, a Vatican-backed team studied the Adrian Dominicans at their motherhouse in Lenawee County. They are among at least 19 sister congregations being investigated under a process called the Apostolic Visitation.
Tension between nuns and the masculine hierarchy of the Church is not new. These women who work directly with the poor and vulnerable have a tendency to wander off the farm and quietly support things like abortion. Coming face to face with poverty can make people a little more pragmatic than, say, living in the golden opulence of the Vatican might.
But the Vatican maintains the study will address the declining number of American nuns and confront concerns about some sisters straying from church teachings -- such as challenging the doctrine on female priests and homosexuality.
Its hard to miss the irony of the Vatican dispatching a team to check up on nuns over matters of doctrinal adherence after decades of almost completely ignoring the most vile of abuses. It's hard to escape the conclusion that the Vatican totally dropped the ball on the biggest moral failing imaginable because its been so busy chasing after some specter of liberalism.