Twin announcements from the Vatican on Monday showcased a surge of activity surrounding what Pope Francis once labeled a “scourge” of sexual abuse against minors, a scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church for decades. But survivors’ advocates, as well as one prominent Catholic conservative group, fear political motivations lie behind these latest actions.
Jozef Wesolowski, a defrocked archbishop and the Vatican’s former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, will stand trial next month on charges stemming from child sex assault, the Holy See said Monday. It marks the first Vatican-held criminal trial for sexual abuse.
The Vatican also announced on Monday that Pope Francis had accepted the resignations of two high-ranking Minnesota clerics facing criminal charges for mishandling complaints of sexual misconduct against a priest. John C. Nienstedt, the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said in a statement Monday that he was resigning along with Auxiliary Bishop Lee Anthony Piché so as not to draw “attention away from the good works of His Church and those who perform them.”
Both announcements follow last week’s debut of a new church tribunal, which was created to investigate and potentially punish bishops engaged in covering up abuse.
While this flurry of activity could represent a shift in how the Catholic Church polices itself, Pope Francis’ critics remain skeptical of the way the Vatican handles sexual abuse. Francis is set to visit three U.S. cities in the fall, and some now wonder whether his latest efforts to hold bishops accountable constitute more of a public relations stunt than real reform.
“The question is, is this a PR attempt for the pope to burnish his image before he appears in the U.S. for his trip in September?” asked Barbara Dorris, outreach director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), in an interview with msnbc. “All we’re hearing still are words; there have been no actions to match those words.”
The new tribunal and Wesolowski’s forthcoming trial could usher in a new era of transparency and accountability for the Catholic Church. But Dorris feels there are still too many unanswered questions.
“How will this trial be conducted? It is public or private? Who will be allowed to testify? Why aren’t civil authorities involved?” asked Dorris of Wesolowski’s trial. The former archbishop stands accused of soliciting sex from young boys on the streets of Santo Domingo, as well as having child pornography on his computer.
“We’re not talking about a spiritual misstep,” Dorris said. “We’re talking about crimes in civil law.”
As for the resignations in Minnesota, Dorris feels the Vatican did not go far enough. Rather than allowing Nienstedt to resign, she said, Pope Francis should have removed him from his post. On June 5, prosecutors charged Nienstedt with six counts of failing to protect minors from Curtis Wehmeyer, a Minnesota priest convicted in 2012 of sexual abuse and possession of child pornography.
Dorris fears that Nienstedt will follow in the footsteps of Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned from the Boston diocese amid accusations he protected priests who sexually abused children. Law went on to head up the Roman Basilica and sit on multiple Vatican committees, one of which was in charge of selecting bishops.
“Don’t you think the guys at Enron would have liked the same choices?” Dorris said. “Would you like to go to prison, or would you like to go to Rome? I’d pick Rome.”
Brian Finnerty, communications director for the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei, told msnbc he sees the recent activity surrounding clerical sex abuse as “another step forward in a long trend,” but that Pope Francis still has work to do.
Catholic League President Bill Donohue, however, criticized the ouster of Neinstedt as “sheer politics.”
“There’s been a campaign to get [Neinstedt] going back to 2006 when he criticized ‘Brokeback Mountain,’” Donohue told msnbc, referring to the 2005 Ang Lee film about two male sheep herders who fall in love in 1960s Wyoming.
“Neinstadt’s been the bane of the left for a long time,” Donohue said. “He’s a good man who’s been treated unfairly.”