Bishops move toward transparency and accountability to restore trust and credibility

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Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki and Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J., converse during the spring general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore June 13, 2019. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The U.S. bishops met in Baltimore from June 11-14 to begin providing their long-awaited response to revelations of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults, as well as cover-ups on the part of several American bishops and cardinals that emerged in 2018. Most notably, this included the case of laicized former cardinal and notorious sexual predator Theodore E. McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, D.C.

The business meeting, which took the place of a previously scheduled weeklong retreat in California, was a follow-up to last November’s general assembly where the bishops were instructed by the Holy See to postpone any attempts to address the scandals until February’s abuse summit at the Vatican. Such a move indicated Rome’s desire to adopt a universal approach to confront, investigate and adjudicate the crimes and sins of clergy, especially bishops.

While the bishops ostensibly chose to hold this meeting solely to attend to the crisis in the Church, the agenda included many other issues, ranging from domestic policy to a vote on a liturgical translation of ordination rites. While this might have been a practical decision, it had the unfortunate effect of seeming to water down the tasks at hand. It also raised the question of how the bishops will be able to maintain a relevant voice in society on domestic issues or much else until they address the crisis head on with openness, honesty and transparency.

On the third and final day of the general assembly, the bishops adopted three new documents meant to help address this new round of sexual scandals that continues to emerge and rock the Church, comprising a national implementation of the universal norms Pope Francis enacted in May with his apostolic letter Vos estis lux mundi.

The motu proprio set the framework within which the bishops must develop their approach to the crisis. In a sincere effort to maintain unity with the Holy See, and to do nothing that might give even the impression of going beyond the law — which only opens up the possibility to use laypeople in an investigation — or to avoid any semblance of being at odds with the Holy See, public debate or discussion on the three new documents was sparse, which did little to offer needed transparency. The schedule for the general assembly indicated there were opportunities for the bishops to discuss matters themselves in several closed-door meetings.

The documents adopted in Baltimore are: “Protocol Regarding Available Non-Penal Restrictions on Bishops,” “Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundi Concerning Bishops and the Equivalents” and “Acknowledging Our Episcopal Commitments.”

Restricting bishops

The “Protocol Regarding Available Non-Penal Restrictions on Bishops” points out how current diocesan bishops and the bishops’ conference can limit retired bishops to a certain extent after having been proven as an abuser or as one who concealed or mishandled any cases of clergy sexual abuse. Since the document does not suggest which, if any, of the restrictions should be imposed on a retired bishop, it is more of a round-up of possibilities rather than a set list of restrictions to be imposed. In that way, it is rather subjective and non-binding. But it does provide a resource to diocesan bishops as they continue to wrestle with the fallout of the crisis.

And the document can be helpful in the future, especially for those who have been unsure of how to handle such situations. The document addresses potential restrictions such as limits placed on a retired bishops’ public ministry, imposition of limits on funding supplied to him by the diocese, the loss of a right to burial in the diocesan cathedral, or the possibility of being barred from future meetings of the bishops’ conference.

Holding bishops accountable

Instead of subjecting themselves wholesale to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People — which would have fulfilled the conditions of the pope’s new legal framework with the exception of a few necessary amendments — the bishops adopted “Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundi Concerning Bishops and their Equivalents.”

One of this text’s main differences from the charter is that allegations against bishops accused of sexual misconduct or cover-up are not placed before an all-lay review board, as in the cases of priests or deacons accused of abuse of minors. In fact, the bishops decided that they would not go above the law given by the pope and pledge themselves to mandate inclusion of the laity in investigations of accused bishops. Instead, the text only recommends that the metropolitan in charge of the investigation make use of qualified laypeople in the course of the investigation, underscoring the great latitude afforded to the metropolitan himself in overseeing how an investigation would unfold. The bishops have more work in front of them to assure transparency and impartiality within this model.

For example, given that diocesan implementation of the charter undergoes regular audits, Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, California, proposed the directives include an auditory process to ensure proper implementation and oversight. Although his amendment was scrapped at this meeting, there is an expectation it will appear as an action item at the November general assembly.

Finally, in “Affirming Our Episcopal Commitment,” the bishops reiterate adherence to the expectations associated with their calling and the responsibilities and obligations of their office as well as a pledge to do better and respond more attentively to the hurt, anger, frustration and betrayal related to the many scandals associated with the crisis.

Also at the meeting, the bishops pledged to develop a national third-party reporting system to field complaints of sexual abuse on the part of bishops, which they said must be implemented by May 31 of next year. Details regarding its implementation will be worked out by the administrative committee by the time of November’s general assembly. Many questions related to how effective it will be in fostering transparency and accountability will have to wait until then.

Vulnerable adults

It was clear the bishops were not of one mind on what constitutes sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult. Moreover, there was no public discussion of what classifies a case of sexual misconduct abuse and what makes the adult vulnerable. Likewise, the sexual abuse of vulnerable adults appeared to be missing from one of the four priorities for the bishops’ conference from 2021-2024, which included a heading to protect and heal “God’s children.” There is currently no national policy for the review of allegations of adult misconduct made against priests or deacons, although some dioceses have established boards similar to those mandated by the charter in order to achieve an impartial and transparent investigation.

The general assembly was held, however, in the shadow of revelations regarding two notable cases of clergy sexual abuse of vulnerable adults, one related to a potentially mishandled case on the part of bishops’ conference president Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, and sexual harassment of adults committed by retired West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield. This growing aspect of the scandal, which came in to focus with 2018’s eruption of the sex abuse crisis, still remains to be tackled by the bishops.

While the bishops started to confront the seemingly unending number of sexual abuse cases and cover-ups among American bishops this week, it remains to be seen how effective these attempts will be in achieving the transparency and accountability the bishops need to restore their credibility and trust among the faithful so wounded by the crisis.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic and a graduate of The Catholic University of America. He writes from Indiana.

Other items on the bishops’ roster
  • June 12: The bishops approved the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, 2nd edition, for use in the dioceses of the United States, and a new translation of the ritual book used for the Ordination of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons for use in the dioceses of the United States. Also, after a consultation on the cause for canonization of the Servant of God Irving (Francis) C. Houle, the bishops voiced their support for the advancement of the cause to a diocesan level.
  • June 13: The U.S. bishops approved the revised passage on the death penalty for the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults.

Michael R. Heinlein

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV's Simply Catholic and author of "Glorifying Christ: The Life of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I."