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Cardinal McCarrick and Bishop Belo — On sexual abuse, has anything really changed?

The Vatican's handling of a bishop's sexual abuse allegations raise familiar questions: Who knew what, when, and what did they do about it?

Left: Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo. José Fernando Real via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0). Right: Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick© Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk

The Vatican acknowledged Thursday that it imposed restrictions in 2020 on the ministry and residency of Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who is accused of sexually abusing teenage boys decades ago.

But Vatican officials will almost certainly face more questions about those restrictions, and about the bishop’s past, as details of the allegations against Belo come into focus in the weeks to come.

The Vatican’s admission came after a Dutch magazine reported this week the serial abuse allegations against the bishop, who has been regarded as a hero of the fight for independence in his native country of East Timor.

The allegations are grave. The bishop is accused of raping young men in the 1980s and ‘90s, and of taking advantage of their poverty, and his power, to keep them silent.

The Holy See’s restrictions on Bishop Belo might seem familiar to U.S. Catholics — the bishop was apparently prohibited in recent years from living in East Timor, contacting minors, or exercising public priestly ministry.

He was instructed, in short, to keep a low profile, even while there was no public acknowledgment of the allegations he faced. The Vatican instructions bear some familiarity to the situation of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, before the allegations against him came to light in 2018, and he was formally laicized the next year.

There are apparently some differences between the restrictions imposed on McCarrick and those Belo faced, but the most interesting one is timing: McCarrick faced Vatican restrictions in 2008, while Belo apparently received them in 2020.

By then, everything was supposed to have changed.

After the McCarrick scandal of 2018, Pope Francis convened a global abuse summit of bishops, ordered the American bishops to go on a retreat, and promulgated Vos estis lux mundi, which was supposed to signal that the Church would not again tolerate abuse or administrative negligence among malfeasant bishops.

“Listen,” the pope urged at his February 2019 abuse summit, “to the cry of the children who ask for justice.”

The pope’s own rhetorical commitment to addressing abuse began earlier than that. In 2016, ahead of the McCarrick scandal, Pope Francis told bishops to have “zero tolerance” for the sexual abuse of children. He reiterated that phrase in an interview this year.

And last year, when Pope Francis promulgated a new code of penal law for the Church, he emphasized that the failure to address canonical crimes with canonical trials has compounded the abuse crisis.

But there is no indication Belo has had any kind of canonical trial, or any formal process at all, pertaining to the rapes he’s accused of committing.

Indeed, while headlines around the globe said the bishop had been “sanctioned” by Rome, that’s not precisely what the Holy See said Thursday.

“Sanctions” under canon law are penalties, usually imposed after a penal process. But Rome said the bishop received “restrictions” — a phrase more often used for the imposition of a precept — a prohibition on future actions, not formally a response to crimes of the past.

While the Holy See preached the idea of “zero tolerance,” and promised that it would address abuse allegations with a commitment to justice, Bishop Belo seems to have been put on something like a quiet house arrest, just like McCarrick was, more than 10 years before.

For many Catholics, that reality will reopen the wounds of the McCarrick scandal.

Of course the Holy See has not said directly there was no formal canonical trial for Bishop Belo. It’s possible that the restrictions were issued during the preliminary stages of an ongoing penal process.

But the phrasing of the Holy See’s statement makes that possibility seem unlikely.

If the Vatican had followed its penal procedures in 2019 or 2020, it would certainly tout that fact today — rather than admit to making the same half measures for Belo that it made for McCarrick.

The Holy See announced openly when it began a penal process for McCarrick, and announced that it had conducted a formal penal process - though it did not announce the results - for Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, who was convicted in Argentine criminal court this year of sexually abusing seminarians.

Even when allegations of inappropriate touching were leveled last month against Vatican Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Vatican was keen to clarify that it had conducted a “preliminary investigation” into the matter — a formal part of the canonical process.

The Holy See said nothing Thursday about a penal process, or even a preliminary investigation, when it discussed the allegations against Belo.

To canonical experts, the omission will be taken as a strong indication that there was not a penal process for Bishop Belo. And canonists will note that if there was a canonical process, it was conducted in secret, and even now remains unacknowledged by the Vatican.

Press officers at the Holy See are surely aware that their statements will be a blow to victims and reform advocates around the world, and that comparisons to McCarrick are inevitable.

Of course, there will be questions about whether the Holy See really chose to do the same thing with Belo as it had done with McCarrick - impose low-key, private restrictions and hope for the best.

If that was the case, as seems likely, victims and advocates will call for accountability, and for justice. It’s not clear whether bishops themselves will bring those questions to Pope Francis, but after McCarrick, many Catholics will expect them to do just that.

There is another element of the Holy See’s statement this week worth considering. The Vatican’s spokesman mentioned Thursday that the “Congregation [sic] for the Doctrine of the Faith was first involved in this case in 2019, in light of the accusations it received concerning the bishop’s behavior.”

The restrictions, Bruni suggested, came through that dicastery.

But Bruni did not say when other dicasteries of the Holy See became aware of allegations concerning the bishop’s behavior. And it is possible the spokesman’s phrasing was intentionally precise – especially since the Holy See declined questions on when other dicasteries had actually learned about the allegation.

Belo resigned from his diocese in 2002, at only 54, and a few years after he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, he resigned just months after his country finally achieved independence - which Belo had long advocated for - and immediately moved to Portugal.

It is possible that Belo’s resignation - which came in the same year as the Boston Globe spotlight scandal - was prompted by allegations against him, especially since a young bishop with a Nobel prize in hand would usually be expected to take a leave of absence from ministry, not resign his office entirely.

But if Belo resigned because of rumors or allegations about sexual abuse, the Vatican Dicastery for Bishops, and the Secretariat of State, would have known about it.

That, of course, raises a lot of questions about why the bishop was permitted to go in 2004 to a missionary parish assignment in Mozambique, where Belo told reporters he was busy “teaching catechism to children, [and] giving retreats to young people.”

If the Holy See knew about the allegations and permitted Belo to serve in parish ministry, the Churchmen involved will have much to answer for.

If the Holy See didn’t know about any allegations until 2019, it’s worth asking why the Vatican believed Belo had resigned 20 years prior, and why the pope was willing to accept that resignation.

In short, Bishop Belo’s case raises the same questions that McCarrick’s did — who knew what, when, and what did they do about it?

But the difference between Belo and McCarrick?

Since the McCarrick scandal broke, the Holy See has heard from scores of victims, and has promised things like “zero tolerance.” The pope has expressed a commitment to justice and transparency.

Of course, those things have not been fully realized in the case of McCarrick - U.S. Catholics continue to ask about McCarrick’s money, and how it impacted his abuse –  and they’ve not yet gotten answers.

Nor have Catholics gotten clear answers in the cases of Zanchetta, or Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, or Bishop Rick Stika, or several others.

And now that's it become clear the Holy See has continued to discreetly handle accused bishops without public acknowledgement, Catholics will ask how many other bishops are under “restrictions” – and for their names.

The parallels between McCarrick and Belo make the questions all the more acute — as does the fact that Belo’s case was handled at the exact same time the Holy See was laicizing McCarrick and launching new policies.

And as the Holy See promises it’s listening to Catholics as part of the synod on synodality, Belo’s case points to one lingering, urgent, and uncomfortable question — apart from the talking points, has anything really changed for the Church's abusive bishops?

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