Sex abuse crisis at highest levels of U.S. Catholic church to dominate agenda at bishops' meeting in Baltimore

The nation’s Catholic bishops will gather in Baltimore this week against the backdrop of a sexual-abuse crisis that has reached the highest levels of the church in the United States.

After a year in which a Pennsylvania grand jury report revealed that hundreds of “predator priests” molested more than 1,000 children over seven decades and a U.S. cardinal resigned over sexual abuse allegations, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is expected to set aside much of its traditionally staid policy-making agenda to address the scandal during three days of meetings that start Monday.

The archbishop of Washington also resigned in connection with the scandal.

“This is going to be a very important meeting in terms of how they respond to the crisis and whether their response is going to be adequate to deal with the tremendous concerns everyone has,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and longtime religion writer.

The annual gathering, set to run through Wednesday at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, will mark the first time the organization has met as a body since the latest round of sex abuse scandals broke.

The bishops — a group of about 300 clerics who head Catholic dioceses across the nation — traditionally use the Baltimore assembly to map out a broad direction for the American church over the coming year.

At last year’s assembly, for instance, the bishops dealt with religious liberty and the right to life. They also addressed the more topical issue of immigration in the age of President Donald Trump, and weighed the cause for canonization of Black Elk, a 19th-century medicine man who became a Catholic teacher.

This year, the sex-abuse crisis is expected to dominate the proceedings in what some are calling the most consequential bishops’ gathering in 16 years.

It was in the summer of 2002 that the group met in Dallas to hammer out new protocols in the wake of a priest sex abuse crisis exposed by The Boston Globe — and brought back to public attention in 2015 in the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight.”

The document it produced — a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People — spelled out a “zero-tolerance” policy toward the sexual abuse of minors by priests and deacons. Most agree the Dallas Charter, as it’s commonly known, helped sharply reduce such incidents.

But the events of the past year have exposed a flaw in the charter: It exempted bishops, leaving oversight of their conduct to the only church authority that ranks above them, the pope.

That means it’s currently up to the Holy Father to oversee the conduct of the more than 5,000 such prelates worldwide, unless a bishop disciplines himself.

That, Reese says, goes a long way toward explaining the torrent of scandals that has engulfed the church over the past year, from the Pennsylvania crisis to the resignations of two of American Catholicism’s most influential figures, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington.

McCarrick, the former Washington archbishop, became in June the first prelate to resign from the College of Cardinals over sex abuse allegations. Wuerl’s fall came amid charges he mishandled abuse allegations against priests under his authority as bishop of Pittsburgh between 1988 and 2006. (He remains a cardinal.)

The cases highlighted questions about the behavior of bishops, how they handle allegations against others and who’s overseeing the bishops’ conduct.

The scandal has led attorneys general in the District of Columbia and 13 states, including Brian Frosh of Maryland, to launch investigations of Catholic clerical sexual abuse, and an attorney for the bishops’ group has said federal officials have ordered it to retain records that might pertain to sexual misconduct.

Inside and outside the church, there’s hope the group will take action this week that shows the bishops are committed to a new protocol of accountability.

The bishops’ powerful administrative committee usually frames the larger agenda for the Baltimore meeting two months in advance. Its members — including Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, the conference president — showed unusual urgency this year by laying out a specific action plan around the issue of sexual abuse, said Sean Caine, a vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

The bishops will be asked to vote on the plan, which calls for three key actions: creating an independent, third-party system by which complaints of sexual abuse by bishops can be reported; creating a code of conduct for bishops around sexual behavior, and establishing policies for disciplining bishops who have resigned or been removed due to sexual misconduct allegations.

The National Review Board, a lay council created to monitor compliance with the Dallas Charter, will also deliver recommendations.

Caine said the success of the assembly will hinge on the bishops’ taking decisive action on such ideas.

“Substantive reform surrounding the issue of accountability for bishops is crucial,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 concern we’re hearing that people have. Anything short of providing a vehicle and a process for the accountability of bishops would be a failure.”

DiNardo has described the scandals a “moral catastrophe” and urged his fellow bishops to face the full truth of the crisis.

"The truth will ensure the terrible sins of the past are not repeated,” he said in a statement last month, adding that the plan “will involve the laity, lay experts, the clergy and the Vatican.”

David Lorenz, the Maryland director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is skeptical that the bishops are up to the task. Lorenz says that without external oversight, American bishops have consistently proven themselves either unable or unwilling to take appropriate action.

In the past, Lorenz said, when some dioceses made public the names of credibly accused priests, they left names off — and used suspect definitions of “credible.”

“They’re not equipped to police themselves,” he said. “They’ve proved that time and again.”

Lorenz said SNAP and another advocacy group for victims, Maryland Catholics for Action, will protest outside the Marriott when the conference opens Monday and will hold a news conference Tuesday.

“I believe there will be more protesters than usual,” he said.

The Silence Stops Now Coalition, which seeks more accountability and transparency from church leadership, is planning to rally more than 2,000 people for speeches and prayer at the MECU Pavilion across the street, according to organizer Michael Voris.

Women of the New Testament ministry at St. Ignatius Catholic Community in Baltimore sent letters to Dinardo and Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori saying they would be “keeping vigil” during the bishops’ meeting, “in the expectation that specific actions will be announced.”

Michael-Vincent Crea, a New York pastor who is on a hunger strike, is calling for Pope Francis to convene a meeting of another group: the victims of the sexual abuse.

“He has convened cardinals, bishops and all sorts of other groups,” Crea said, “yet we have not had a convocation and commitment for the cure that only the violated can prescribe and the pope needs to hear.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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