When Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Missouri Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted three years ago for failing to report a priest suspected of child abuse, he sent a powerful message to the Catholic Church.
Here are five takeaways from the news, which the Vatican announced on April 21.
1. This is a big deal.
During the past decade, the most intense years of the Catholic Church’s long-running clergy sex abuse scandal, thousands of priests have been punished or defrocked for abusing children, and a few bishops found guilty of molestation have also quit.
But until Finn, no American bishop had ever been forced from office (despite the terse Vatican announcement that he “resigned”) for covering up for a predator priest.
That sets a precedent in an institution where many have regarded the hierarchy as a privileged caste that should not be held to the same standards as others in the church. Some feared that if a bishop were pushed out for failing to do his job, it would create a domino effect that could topple the entire superstructure.
“We all know there are other U.S. bishops wondering ‘who is the next?’” tweeted church historian Massimo Faggioli.
But Francis seems to be betting this sort of accountability at the top will strengthen the church, and even help restore the credibility of the bishops.
2. Finn was an easy case.
Finn is the only U.S. bishop ever convicted in court of failing to report a suspected abuser, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, who was later sentenced to 50 years on federal child pornography charges.