Bishops debate extent of lay involvement in sex abuse response

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks on the first day of the spring general assembly of the USCCB in Baltimore June 11, 2019. (CNS photo/Bob Roller) 

Preliminary discussion about proposals aimed at bishop accountability evinced some frustration among U.S. bishops at their spring general assembly this week in Baltimore, especially when it comes to the degree of lay involvement that can be mandated to be part of the process. Bishops expressed their intention to adopt protocols aimed at accountability, but they are still hammering out the details ahead of a vote on Thursday.

Bishop Robert P. Deeley, who heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committee on canonical affairs and church governance, told the assembly on June 11 that any rules they adopt cannot exceed a policy promulgated by Pope Francis last month in the moto proprioVos estis lux mundi.” In that document, the Vatican decreed that allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct, as well as mismanagement, leveled against a bishop must be investigated by a metropolitan bishop or someone he appoints, or by a senior suffragan bishop if the metropolitan is accused.

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It suggests that bishops rely on lay experts to carry out the investigation but stops short of mandating lay involvement. Several U.S. bishops have said that as a result, they cannot mandate lay involvement in their own protocols. But they also said it would be highly unusual for a metropolitan bishop not to take advantage of lay expertise.

Some bishops sought reassurances that lay people will be involved in every stage of any future investigations.

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Some bishops sought reassurances that lay people will be involved in every stage of any future investigations.

“A number of us are looking for ways to insert into the plan more robust lay involvement,” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego told the plenary group. He asked if the U.S.C.C.B. could adopt a rule that says that anyone enlisted to examine allegations of misconduct or mismanagement by a bishop “needs to be a lay investigator.”

Bishop Deeley said no.

“We have said that he ‘should’ use laypeople,” the bishop said, but added, “we cannot say ‘must.’”

The possibility that bishops would have the option of handling claims of misconduct or mismanagement without the involvement of laypeople troubled the head of the church’s highest sexual abuse commission.

“A review board whose membership includes laity must be tasked with the review of allegations against bishops to restore the trust of the faithful in the bishops and even in the Holy See’s own processes for holding bishops’ accountable,” Francesco Cesareo, the chairman of the National Review Board, said in an address to bishops Tuesday morning. “The N.R.B. urges that this must be the case in the United States through the establishment of an ad hoc lay commission, either on the national or local level.”

“The church is inherently incapable of policing itself,” Robert Hoatson, the founder of Road to Recovery, told Faith in Public Life.

Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, proposed a model of bishop accountability last November that is similar to the policy adopted by Pope Francis for the universal church in May. On Tuesday morning, the cardinal pointed out that the Vatican document allows for a metropolitan bishop to use “an ecclesiastical office” in carrying out an investigation and said lay review boards may be a useful model “to institutionalize” the inclusion of laity. Such a move, he said, would send a signal that bishops understand the gravity of the challenges they face.

“That’s an important message to send,” Cardinal Cupich said. In an interview with America later in the day, Cardinal Cupich said that metropolitan archbishops already rely on lay experts for assistance through various institutional offices in their dioceses and that he expects that practice to extend to bishop accountability should the new protocols be adopted.

The Most Rev. Steven Biegler, the bishop of Cheyenne, said in an interview with America that another possible way to ensure lay voices are part of the process is to require that the contents of any investigation be forwarded to Rome. He added that beyond policy changes, a culture of accountability remains an ongoing goal for bishops.

Though proposals include a mandate for church leaders to alert civil authorities if a crime is alleged, some victim advocate groups seem alarmed that bishops may try handling allegations of mismanagement without the aid of laypeople.

“The church is inherently incapable of policing itself,” Robert Hoatson, the founder of Road to Recovery, told Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. He said the proposal for metropolitan bishops to handle the investigations of other bishops is “ridiculous.”

He said bishops must “respond to Pope Francis’s call for universal accountability” and “add clear new procedures to our existing protection programs.”

“We know that doesn’t work,” he said of “bishops policing bishops,” pointing to the case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was removed from the priesthood following allegations that he sexually abused minors and harassed adult seminarians.

Boston’s Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who serves as the chair of the Vatican commission charged with protecting children, said U.S. bishops should consider adopting language that would mandate rapidity when it comes to responding to allegations of misconduct or mismanagement against bishops.

He noted that once the Vatican is informed of an allegation, it has 30 days to respond and to provide further directions to the metropolitan bishop. Cardinal O’Malley said that this timeline may not work in the United States, saying, “waiting a month before you can begin the investigation...is a far cry from the usual practice.”

“I wonder if we can urge the Holy See to respond rapidly,” he added.

Earlier in the day, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the U.S.C.C.B. president and the archbishop of Galveston-Houston, said bishops must act boldly.

“Brothers, we gather this week to further the sacred work of rooting the evil of sexual abuse from our church,” said Cardinal DiNardo. He said bishops must “respond to Pope Francis’s call for universal accountability” and “add clear new procedures to our existing protection programs.”

Cardinal DiNardo has faced recent accusations that he mishandled a case involving a priest who carried on an affair with a woman the priest was counseling about marital troubles. In November, the cardinal’s office was raided by law enforcement investigating claims that a Houston priest sexually assaulted two teenagers decades ago. Cardinal DiNardo has denied wrongdoing in both instances, but that has not stopped some Catholics from calling for him to resign as head of the U.S. bishops conference.

“It is very hard to see how the conference can continue this way, with a president who is even worse than a lame duck,” the Villanova University church historian Massimo Faggioli told CNN. “The credibility of the U.S. bishops is in freefall, which can only be stopped by a visible change in leadership.”

In addition to the proposal on how to handle investigations of bishops, the body of bishops is expected to vote this week on establishing a third-party system for people to report allegations against bishops of misconduct or mismanagement and a code of conduct for bishops. They are set to vote on a 10-point statement, "Affirming Our Episcopal Commitments," in which the bishops hope to regain “the trust of the people of God” and commit themselves to the standards applied to priests in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

The document, presented on June 11 by Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J., chairman of the bishops' Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, has been updated from a version mailed to bishops in May. The previous document, then titled "Acknowledging Our Episcopal Commitments," had nine points. The current version has 10.

The newest point reads, “We are also committed...to include the counsel of lay men and women whose professional backgrounds are indispensable.”

Other points in the proposed document include explicit prohibitions on sexual harassment of adults, reiterating “that there can be no 'double life,' no 'special circumstances,' no 'secret life' in the practice of chastity," and a pledge to promote procedures for reporting allegations of abuse or misconduct.

Shortly after their discussion of sexual abuse, bishops heard a presentation from Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles about the large numbers of young Catholics leaving the church. Topics of discussion included distractions from electronic devices, a need to speak more forthrightly about religion to young people in the style of controversial YouTube star Jordan Peterson and the impact of “the wasteland of atheism,” as Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City put it.

One item not mentioned as a primary reason young people are leaving the church: the sexual abuse crisis.

Content from Catholic News Service was used in this report.

arthur mccaffrey
1 week ago

“That’s an important message to send,” Cardinal Cupich said. Is this just a PR exercise about "sending messages", rather than authentic transformation? My one BIG question in the midst of all this Bishop talktalktalk is: why has no Bishop or Cardinal resigned in shame and disgust yet? Now that's the guy I would listen to!

Nora Bolcon
6 days 20 hours ago

Did we really expect an actual change? Fool me once shame on you . . . . .

Timothy Hogan
1 week ago

Our Roman Catholic Church must reconcile itself with victims of clergy abuse, and is failing to do so.

https://dangerousintersection.org/2010/09/16/roman-catholics-must-reconcile-with-victims-of-abuse/

Alexei Michalenko
1 week ago

Most of the VICTIMS of abuse are lay persons, so they should have a say-so about the issue in the church. And priests and religious women should have a say-so, too. They are the ones being accused and who knows how many were/are also abused. The bishops alone should not be deciding these issues. Bishops should not be acting just like police and from the latest news I've heard, police are also covering up/failing to report when other police officers abuse their power. It's really a question/issue of power and not authority.

david_roccosalva@yahoo.com
1 week ago

"“We have said that he ‘should’ use laypeople,” the bishop said...
Yes, they certainly did use laypeople. Now we have good people like Archbishop Lori and Cardinal Law to take bribe money from West Virginia Bishop Bransfield. Who wouldn't trust them?

Jim Spangler
1 week ago

There can be no longer trust for the Bishops to oversee themselves. Their trust level is null, and will continue to be so until they have outside over site. There is not an honest man among them that I can trust.

Katie Molina
1 week ago

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Erin B
1 week ago

I have a solution. Accusation reported, police are notified, police investigate. Done.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
6 days 23 hours ago

So, the bishops are once more at a posh Baltimore hotel (you really think these ingenious "stewards" would keep one piece of property they are so hell-bent on selling for their meetings), busily rearranging chairs on the Titanic under Captains Tobin and Cupich, We are to trust the bishops to investigate themselves when we saw the pitiful whitewash redaction Lori pulled off on the Bransfield report (Bransfield under the bus, recipients of his largesse still in office, less so). Commentator McCaffrey has it right: haven't seen one of these pitiful yes men resign in disgust, as opposed to being forced to resign because of their disgusting lack of a spine.

Mister Mckee
6 days 21 hours ago

So that's it? They're focused on discussing the parameters and limits of their own POWER?
What a joke!
Di Nardo, resign now so the USCCB can save what little face it has left!

Crystal Watson
6 days 20 hours ago

Last night on the PBS NewsHour, mention of the Bishops meeting and about priests sexually assaulting nuns ... https://youtu.be/QJfAorE860M

Mark Andrews
6 days 20 hours ago

Consider the example of St. Pope John II and Mariel Maciel. How can a bishop, the Bishop of Rome, be personally holy, have the fullness of ordinary & extraordinary jurisdiction, be the Vicar of Christ - and be a managerial moron?

Pope Benedict XVI had to deal with Maciel, and he didn't exactly break a sweat doing that, either. Before Karol Wojtyła was Pope he was "Charles," "Chuck" if you will. Well, Chuck passed the buck on Mariel Maciel. Maciel was a nasty piece of work and I hope he enjoys eternity in Hell, which he worked overtime to earn.

TL;DR - the Roman episcopate can't manage its way out of a paper bag. Call me UNINTERESTED in anything they have to say.

I am seriously considering “crossing the Bosphorus." I do not know if Orthodoxy is any better than the RCC, but I am pushing 60. I don't have a lot of time to waste.

Frank T
6 days 18 hours ago

What about Bishops who abuse seminarians? Without laypersons involved in the process there is inherent bias against the seminarian and more likelihood of whitewash. Without impartiality of judgement in these cases, there will be no real justice. Obviously, the Church can no longer be allowed to patrol itself.

Randal Agostini
6 days 17 hours ago

Every time the Bishops convene they seem to be completely oblivious to their surroundings as though the storm clouds part and bathe them in continual sunshine. Every day the Laity are bombarded with one new scandal after another as we wait in apprehension for the next soap installment. In the meantime "trust" has flown - gone and it is downright stupid to believe that it can be rebuilt with more talk. We need our Bishops and our priests in the trenches with us to share this diabolical scandal, fast, or they will reap the whirlwind.

sheila gray
6 days 15 hours ago

I agree with you, Randal. I am beginning to believe the Bishops are literally incapable of doing anything right. The Laity better get involved!!!

Jim Spangler
6 days 10 hours ago

There can be no system of over site by the Bishops that can be trusted, without the involvement of Laity. It is time for the Laity to stand up and be involved! There is no longer credibility among the hierarchy. Why are they so afraid of transparency and involving the Laity? Financial credibility is at stake also. Outside audits of all dioceses need to be implemented, as there is no longer any trust in the treasury! Pope Francis is so busy preaching HERESY that he does not realize that the Church is falling apart. Cupich, Whorl, Tobin, Dolan, all of them need to be defrocked and investigated.

Vincent Gaglione
6 days 1 hour ago

The fact that the bishops are “debating” the issue of lay involvement speaks volumes to what our problems in the Catholic Church are. Attitudes that represent the laity as “lesser” members of the Church than clergy and religious perpetuate the culture that got us into this mess in the first place. Let me repeat a cynical comment that I have made on this site before. What we need is a non-Catholic lay person, perhaps even an atheist, as part of any oversight body established to insure integrity in the Church.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.]

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