Synodal church must be more accountable

The ongoing synod on synodality is an opportunity for the church leadership to become more accountable towards sexual abuse cases, increase laity participation, and bring more transparency within the Catholic Church, says an expert.

“A synodal Church is a listening Church… but it needs to go a step further: a synodal Church is an accountable Church and an accountable Church needs to be synodal,” said Myriam Wijlens, (pictured) a canon law professor at the University of Erfurt, Germany.

The synodality and accountability in Catholic Church are deeply interconnected, Wijlens, a member of the Coordinating Commission of the Synod on Synodality, said during a wide-ranging interview with Polish Catholic quarterly Wiez.

The first phase of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops started in the Vatican on 4 October and is scheduled to end on 29 October.

The second phase will be held next October.

The bishops’ synod is part of the ongoing global Synod on Synodality which was started by Pope Francis on Oct. 10, 2021.

The synod in the Vatican “is a meeting within the larger Synod. It is a special moment within the Synod of the Church,” Wijlens said.

Pope Francis’s suggestion to bishops’ conferences to reflect on the accountability aspect of its members in 2019 was due to the inefficient response from bishops towards abuse allegations, she said.

“The Church became aware that there was the abuse of minors by clergy, but there was also a severe problem in that those in leadership had not acted in accordance with the responsibility flowing from their office as bishop,” Wijlens said.

The “Instrumentum laboris” – the guiding document for the synod had questions that discussed the accountability of bishops and the role of women in it, she pointed out.

The document has questions such as “How can bishops be more accountable?” and a separate section on women which asks, “How women [can] assist the Church in being more accountable?”

Wijlens said that the priority was to “complete the work of making accountability well seated in theory, in theology and canon law.”

In 2020, Pope Francis through a motu proprio, a papal document personally signed by the pope, titled “Vos estis lux mundi” (You Are the Light of the World) ordered bishops worldwide to report cases of clergy sex crimes to the police even when not legally bound to do so.

The Vatican’s manual for bishops and religious superiors details the process for conducting in-house investigations into allegations of priests who rape and molest minors and vulnerable adults.

Wijlens suggested that independent judges who take a neutral approach toward the evaluation of abuse cases are better suited than local bishops as there is a possibility of bias when they may have to investigate each other.

“We need independent judges not only because the bishops might need to investigate each other and that would not help the issue of credibility.

“We also see that those who conduct these investigations need to have expertise in collecting evidence, weighing it, etc,” she said.

She recommended the engaging of laity or “judges in civil courts who have special training,” to investigate abuse cases.

She also pointed out that the implementation of any changes related to accountability or women’s participation in the Catholic Church cannot be achieved at a uniform scale globally.

“A challenge is certainly that not all places go with the same speed and that thus not all are at the same point in implementing being an accountable Church,” Wijlens said.

Based on her experience in the Synodal consultations in Europe, Wijlens said that a desire for transparency was exhibited by the Church leadership.

She referred to the synodal meeting in Prague which was open to journalists.

“Their presence gave expression to the desire to be transparent. That too had an impact on the meeting,” she said.

Wijlens pointed out that the meeting had 49 women as participants in contrast to only 42 bishops among the total 200 participants, showing increased participation of women in Church reforms.

She also called for the need to develop various structures of accountability based on the “context of where people live.”

“We should strengthen diocesan pastoral councils, parish pastoral councils and search for ways how this participation may be better developed,” Wijlens said.

She pointed out that one of the key needs is to create an awareness among the Catholic clergy “to bring the laity as the center of the Church.”

“We first need a change of mentality. Because we may have rules and procedures for everything, but it will not stop people from not implementing them. Internal awareness is absolutely crucial,” she said.

“This change will not happen overnight, but things are developing already. A synodal process is a journey in this direction. The train has begun to ride, and we won’t be able to stop it,” she added.

  • Professor Myriam Wijlens is a Dutch theologian and professor of canon law at the University of Erfurt (Germany), a clerical sexual abuse expert in civilian courts regarding Church liability, a canonical delegate for penal investigations and a policy writer.
  • Republished from
Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.

Tags: , , , , , , ,