This story was originally posted on April 22, 2004.
Prompted largely by the Catholic sex-abuse scandal, the Vatican is calling on ranking archbishops to monitor their regions actively for mishandling of abuse cases or other matters.
The directive, contained in a pending updated manual of bishops' duties, promotes the hierarchical custom of "fraternal correction." It urges prelates known as metropolitan archbishops to confront bishops of smaller neighboring dioceses about any "abuses and errors" and report the cases to Rome.
The action is being praised by some as assuring a welcome vigilance. It is criticized by others as relying on a voluntary, in-house procedure that has rarely brought sanctions in the past. Some say the move could undercut recent efforts at independent scrutiny of the hierarchy.
Fraternal correction "is a system built on goodwill, and that has hardly ever worked in church history," said the Rev. Ladislas Orsy, a prominent canon lawyer who teaches at Georgetown University's law school.
The Vatican directive is to take effect worldwide in coming weeks, once it is translated from Italian and distributed.
It comes at a pivotal time in the American church, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops debates its lay review board's request to repeat the special outside auditing of dioceses' sex-abuse policies that was conducted last year. Some Vatican officials have voiced unease at having lay-run oversight of bishops, and a faction of U.S. bishops has lobbied against having another round of audits.
"Some of them may try to cite fraternal correction to stop the audits," Anne Burke, an Illinois judge who heads the review board, said Tuesday of the dissenting bishops. "That's why the lay board has to stay in place. We must stay strong and committed to this."
The review board's stinging report on the abuse crisis, made public in February, called for greater fraternal correction. But it also backed further audits and endorsed a system proposed by Georgetown's Orsy under which teams of clergy and laity would visit dioceses with broad powers to take testimony.
Msgr. John Strynkowski, an official of the bishops conference, has read the Vatican document and said it urges a metropolitan archbishop to report a bishop's "abuses and errors" to the envoy known as the papal nuncio.
Strynkowski said the archbishops could learn of problems through news reports, conversations with bishops, and letters from parishioners. Serious problems such as fiscal mismanagement, excessive drinking, or mishandling of sex-abuse cases would be reported automatically, he said, while others might be "questions of prudence" best handled through private talks with the bishop.
"Most bishops would be amenable to fraternal correction," said Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill., canonical-affairs chairman for the bishops conference. "We profit from each other's mistakes and listen to each other's counsel."
Fraternal correction has often proved difficult because bishops have no authority over one another. Though the Vatican wants archbishops to take the lead because they are "first among equals" in territorial clusters of dioceses, they cannot order a bishop in that cluster, known as a suffragan, to open files, halt an action, or even meet with them.
The U.S. church has 33 clusters, or provinces, each headed by a metropolitan archbishop. Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia is metropolitan for the eight dioceses in Pennsylvania.
Rigali declined to comment on the Vatican directive, saying through his spokeswomen that he would review it in coming months with the state's bishops.
Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, a former president of the U.S. bishops conference, said the directive gives metropolitans "responsibility more than authority, and it's relatively vague responsibility."
If he hears a bishop "is messing up, say, spending without accountability, I may call and say, 'Is it true? What's going on?' But I don't remember ever intervening in 22 years" as a metropolitan.
"I have a hard enough time supervising what goes on in Cincinnati," he said, "and I hardly know the good stuff, much less the bad, about my suffragans."
Pilarczyk said he favored further audits. The directive's expectations of metropolitans "sound fine, but we all have to live in the real world," he said.
Another skeptic is the Rev. Thomas Doyle, who gained renown as an early, thwarted whistleblower on sex abuse by priests when he worked for the papal nuncio in the 1980s.
"Bishops protect each other, and the Vatican protects bishops above all," said Doyle, now an Air Force chaplain. "That is obvious from what has happened in the last few years."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said he believes the abuse scandal has given bishops "a great incentive" to blow the whistle: "They realize this is a disaster and when one screws up, they're all blamed."
Still, he said, Rome has only one penalty for bishops, removal from office, "which is the ecclesiastical equivalent of the nuclear bomb. The Vatican is extremely reluctant to use it. Instead, it wants to put moral pressure on bishops through the archbishops or the papal nuncio."
The new directive "will not bring any miracles," Reese said. "It's just some tinkering with procedures."