The true test that will show if the bishops have learned the lessons of the sex abuse crisis
It has been one year since Theodore McCarrick, the once-powerful cardinal archbishop of Washington and Vatican advisor, announced his withdrawal from public ministry after an allegation that he sexually abused a teenager decades ago was found credible. Since then, other revelations have unsettled the U.S. church. The Pennsylvania grand jury report, released last August, led to investigations into the church’s handling of abuse claims in 20 other states, and dozens of dioceses have released the names of credibly accused priests.
In June, the U.S. bishops put forward their first official response to the growing chorus of justifiably angry and frustrated Catholics who want to see concrete measures and public accountability for bishops responsible for clerical abuse and its cover-up. At their annual spring meeting in Baltimore, the bishops overwhelmingly approved three measures toward that end: a third-party hotline to report abuse; a system, which can include laypeople, to receive and investigate these claims; and a protocol that allows bishops to restrict the ministry of retired prelates who are accused of abuse or negligence.
These new measures have, however, been met with skepticism from some church reform groups because they do not absolutely require the involvement of laypeople.
These new measures have, however, been met with skepticism from some church reform groups because they do not absolutely require the involvement of laypeople. Bishops have responded that such involvement is a practical certainty even if not formally mandated. At this point, the reasonable stance among concerned Catholics regarding these new policies is “trust but verify.”
These reforms are a welcome and necessary first step; they almost certainly will need to be updated and revised in the coming years. In any case, even the most perfect protocols need to be implemented with justice and transparency in order to restore trust. The true test of the bishops’ commitment to reform will be how these policies are used to report and respond to actual episcopal misconduct.
At that point, the faithful will expect—and pastoral responsibility will require—a forthright response, applying these new procedures as its starting point and going beyond them where necessary. This will show whether the bishops have truly learned the lessons of this past year.