Mary Abb Stefko, Indian Head, prays the Rosary at a Silence Stops Now rally at the MECU Pavilion in November. The rally called for the end to clerical silence around sexual abuse. Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun staff.
Mary Abb Stefko, Indian Head, prays the Rosary at a Silence Stops Now rally at the MECU Pavilion in November. The rally called for the end to clerical silence around sexual abuse. Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun staff. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Critics, clergy and lay members of the Catholic church will be watching this week as the nation’s top Catholic clerics gather in Baltimore for a conference to address issues of their own accountability on matters of sex abuse.

Nearly 300 members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are to begin their three-day spring general assembly at the Baltimore Waterfront Marriott Hotel Tuesday.

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Their goal is to complete a task they were unable to finish in a similar meeting in Baltimore six months ago: to establish the protocols they will use to hold themselves accountable for sexual misconduct and for responding appropriately to reports of misconduct by others.

The crisis of clergy sex abuse has roiled the Catholic church for so long, and its leaders have promised in vain to institute effective reforms so many times, that some view this week’s assembly as a now-or-never proposition.

“It’s awful, but the [U.S.] bishops have lost the benefit of the doubt,” said John Carr, founding director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, a think tank at Georgetown University. “They have to demonstrate by their actions that they can begin to restore trust.

“Are they capable of holding themselves accountable? They have to. People’s faith is being tested. The voice of the church in public life is being hurt. This meeting in Baltimore will be a test as to whether they understand those challenges.”

The bishops group — the church’s most powerful ecclesiastical body in the United States — held its annual fall meeting in Baltimore in November at a moment of extraordinary global scrutiny.

Pope, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, face class-action lawsuit from 6 who say they suffered abuse

While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops concludes a three-day meeting in Baltimore this week, a class-action lawsuit has been filed against them in Washington. The suit was filed in federal court on behalf of six people who say they were victims of sexual abuse by priests.

One of the church’s most powerful figures, Theodore McCarrick, had resigned from the College of Cardinals earlier in the year amid allegations he had abused seminarians and others over a course of decades.

A Pennsylvania grand jury report later revealed that more than 300 “predator priests” had sexually abused more than 1,000 children in the state over a 70-year span. And Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington resigned over allegations he had mishandled the cases of abusive priests while bishop of Pittsburgh.

The U.S. bishops prepared plans for consideration and voting at the November conference, but Pope Francis short-circuited their agenda at the last moment, ordering that they take no formal action.

Even as activists staged angry protests outside, the group was reduced to discussion and issuing broad statements of resolve and hopefulness.

In the months since, Pope Francis has taken steps on the sex-abuse question that some say should help the bishops attain their goals this week, but that others believe could complicate their mission.

In February, Francis held the first-ever global summit on sex abuse at the Vatican, a gathering that allowed the presidents of every national conference to share ideas on the subject.

Last month, Francis issued an edict calling for worldwide reforms, including the creation of third-party systems by which Catholics can report misconduct by bishops; granting archbishops, or “metropolitans,” the authority to investigate other bishops; increasing protections for whistleblowers, and expanding lay input on disciplinary matters.

Catholic church all talk on sexual abuse scandal

The Catholic Church did little during a four-day summit at the Vatican to address sexual abuse by priests.

“The pope took the pressure off them,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and religion writer who has long covered the church. “He has given them an outline. They only need to tweak it and adapt it to the United States.”

Others say it’s not so clear that it helped.

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C. Colt Anderson, a theologian and church historian at Fordham University, said the fact that Francis has expanded the role of lay Catholics but not given them oversight authority has put the bishops “between the proverbial rock and a hard place.”

Until Catholics and the general public can see that outside entities have independent input, he said, the church will have trouble restoring confidence.

If the bishops adopt rules this week that give independent review boards merely “consultative” authority, then the first time “an Archbishop fails to do what should be done, and that gets into the press — and it will eventually — they will lose credibility again and I don’t think they can afford it,” said Anderson, a practicing Catholic.

“I don’t say that as a critic, I say it as a friend,” he added.

A series of fresh revelations has only added to the pressure on the bishops this week.

The Catholic Diocese of Dallas is mired in controversy after police raided its chancery last month for “secret files” containing information on allegations against a number of its priests.

Cardinal Daniel J. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the bishops conference, has been accused of mishandling allegations against a priest in his diocese.

And Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori became the center of controversy last week after the Washington Post reported that he had accepted $10,500 in cash gifts from West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, whose alleged sexual and financial misconduct Lori investigated between September and January.

In report to Vatican, Baltimore Archbishop Lori deleted mention of gifts from bishop he investigated

Archbishop William Lori omitted mention of a series of gifts from West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield,

It was the first time a U.S. archbishop had successfully overseen a comprehensive investigation by a lay panel of a fellow bishop.

Mansfield was relieved of his West Virginia duties in March, and Francis will use the panel’s report as he considers his final decisions on Bransfield.

But questions about Lori’s transparency arose when the Post reported he had deleted from the report mention of the gifts he and other powerful clerics had received from Bransfield.

“Looking back on this in hindsight, I would say that judgment call was a mistake,” Lori said last week.

Lori returned $7,500 to the Wheeling-Charleston diocese last week and asked that it be donated to Catholic Charities. The other $3,000 Bransfield gave Lori was for honoraria and travel expenses related to two masses Lori celebrated in Wheeling-Charleston, said Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Baltimore archdiocese.

Carr said the bishops can make inroads if they meet three broader goals, and he’s hopeful they can address them successfully.

“It seems to me that three things are required of them: to show empathy, urgency and action,” said Carr, who worked for the conference for more than 20 years earlier in his career. “They need to set up and demonstrate that they will hold each other accountable for action and inaction. I hope and trust they will pass that test.”

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