The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops passed three major proposals Thursday to address their own accountability in sex abuse cases.
On the final morning of their three-day spring meeting in Baltimore, the most powerful clerics in the American church voted overwhelmingly to approve a measure that adapts universal protocols Pope Francis issued last month to the church in the United States.
They also approved a proposal that commits them to the terms of the so-called Dallas Charter, a 2002 document that affirmed a zero tolerance policy against child sexual abuse but excluded bishops, and accepted a measure granting diocesan bishops the power to discipline predecessors who left office for a “grave” reason.
The proposals passed with a total of 647 votes for, eight against, and five votes to abstain.
The actions came a day after the conference approved a measure calling for the creation of a national third-party system by which Catholics and others can file reports of sex abuse by bishops.
Given the intensity of the scandals as recently as 2018, when even leaders as powerful as former Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick were brought down, one observer called the moves important, but said what matters most is where things go from here. The pope expelled McCarrick from the priesthood for sexually abusing minors and seminarians
“It was a year ago that the McCarrick revelations came out,” said John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. “Since then, there has been a global summit at the Vatican and a major statement requiring action from Pope Francis, and four measures have been passed by the bishops’ conference.
“That is substantial and welcome progress. The question is how they will carry it out, who will be involved and whether all this changes the episcopal culture that let the [abuse] happen. I am hopeful but watching.”
The U.S. bishops were prepared to introduce and debate similar proposals in November at their annual fall assembly in Baltimore, but the pope intervened at the last moment, directing the group to take no action at that time. Three months later, he hosted a global summit in Rome on abuse, and he drew on some of the ideas presented at that gathering in crafting Vos estis lux mundi (“you are the light of the world”), an edict he released May 9.
The document modified church doctrine to establish universal laws regarding clergy sexual abuse, including abuse by bishops. It condemned cover-ups, called for quick reporting of allegations and included provisions protecting whistleblowers.
It also settled a pivotal question: Should the church grant oversight authority to lay entities or try to keep accountability in-house? Francis opted for the latter, choosing the so-called “metropolitan” model. The metropolitans, or archbishops, of each major jurisdiction are “strongly encouraged” – but not required — to involve lay boards or individuals in reviewing sex abuse allegations against bishops.
In cases where the metropolitan is the object of a complaint, the next highest-ranking bishop in the province is to take his place directing an investigation.
Bishop Robert Deeley of the diocese of Portland, Maine, is chairman of the committee that wrote the document adapting Vos estis to the U.S. Deeley said it would have violated canon law to make lay involvement mandatory in this country, since it would have meant adding “restrictions” the pope did not call for. But he termed the use of lay advisers crucial and said it’s already an entrenched practice in the U.S.
He pointed to a recent investigation led by Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori of former West Virginia bishop Michael J. Bransfield as an example of how well the metropolitan model can work.
Lori drew widespread criticism when it was revealed he omitted from his final report on Bransfield the fact that Lori and other top clerics had received thousands of dollars in gifts from Bransfield. Lori later admitted error and returned $7,500.
Deeley said that didn’t detract from the success of the inquiry, which was carried out by lay experts and found multiple instances of financial and sexual misconduct on Bransfield’s part.
“The process was an investigation of Bishop Bransfield, which has been successfully completed,” he said.
Each of the four proposals passed this week is governed by a mandate in the pope’s letter that church officials abide by civil laws, including those for reporting crimes.
The measure that dealt with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth, which the bishops passed 17 years ago in Dallas, charges them with following the same rules that govern their subordinates. It also includes a statement acknowledging the failures of bishops who have committed sexual abuse or mishandled reports of abuse by others.
“We, the bishops of the U.S., have heard the anger expressed by so many within and outside the church over these failures,” the statement reads. “The anger is justified.”
The question of addressing the behavior of retired bishops arose at the November meeting when two diocesan bishops reported problems they were having dealing with “emeritus” bishops whose careers had ended amid abuse-related allegations. The policy authorizes diocesan bishops to restrict the ministries of such bishops and to involve the Vatican in the process, if necessary.
Carr, who worked as a staff member for the U.S. bishops for more than two decades, said he knows observers want to hear strong statements against sex abuse from the bishops. He cautioned that the byzantine procedures at play in such a large assembly as this week’s can make it hard for participants to show what they feel.
What matters, he said, is how effectively they implement what they’ve approved.
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“Robert’s Rules of Order are not a good way to convey empathy and passion, but it’s how things need to get done,” Carr said. “I hope they mean [what they’ve vowed to do]. They’d better mean it. My hope is that this is a turning point.”