“Come, Holy Spirit. Give us the strength to humbly match the courageous witness of those abuse survivors with a boldness of reform for the Church in the United States. This week we continue a journey that will not end until there is not one instance of sexual abuse within our Church.”
With those words, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the current president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, opened their 2019 General Assembly this week. The most recent revelations about systemic sexual abuse and harassment have lent particular urgency to this attempt to standardize and apply the same standards to bishops as to priests: Theodore McCarrick, former Archbishop of Washington, D.C., was defrocked after credible allegations of abuse and misconduct surfaced, and Michael J. Bransfield, former Bishop of West Virginia, was forced to step down in the fall while under investigation for systemic sexual harassment and corruption, as revealed by the Washington Post.
The new rules the bishops passed did not, despite strong encouragement from advocates inside and outside the Church, mandate independent lay involvement in investigations of bishops. The Conference did overwhelmingly approve a policy stating that laity should be involved in the process of investigations.
Last November, Catholic bishops gathered in Baltimore determined to act on problems raised by gaps in the 2002 “Dallas Charter” for the Protection of Children and Young Adults – most notably that it did not explicitly extend to bishops. Then, as their deliberations were about to begin, they abruptly stopped on the request of the Vatican. There was going to be an international consultation and a new set of rulings from Pope Francis to help the whole Church deal with the sex abuse crisis – even in jurisdictions outside the U.S. where a wave of accusations has not yet hit the Church.
That hope was realized in part with a February gathering in Rome and a motu propio last month from Pope Francis, which spells out new global policies on clergy abuse and cover up. This week, the bishops met in Baltimore again, to set up more stable and better procedures for dealing with abuse from a bishop.
Pope Francis’ motu propio states simply that investigations of bishops may involve lay experts, rather than declaring that they must involve lay experts. The responsibility to investigate lies in the hands of the metropolitan bishop, the head of the local region of bishops (or his assistant bishop in cases of accusations against the metropolitan).
Many activists are skeptical of this model. As Bob Hoatson, president of Road to Recovery and an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse puts it, “I think the Church is inherently incapable of policing itself. It’s only since the attorneys general of the United States have gotten involved in the investigations that we’ve made progress.”
Even lay members of the institutional apparatus of the Church are calling for expanded lay involvement. Dr. Francesco Cesareo, the head of the National Review Board (NRB), which investigates the Church’s compliance with its commitments to fight sexual abuse, puts it this way in his report to the USCCB’s General Assembly: “The NRB remains uncomfortable with allowing bishops to review allegations against other bishops as this essentially means bishops policing bishops. The metropolitan will gain greater credibility if a lay commission is established when allegations come forward to assist in the process as has been the case with lay review boards on the local level.”
Despite these objections, the bishops’ plan that passed did not require independent lay involvement in any report of abuse by a bishop. In their implementation of Pope Francis’ motu propio, the investigating metropolitan is strongly encouraged to involve lay experts and investigators, but the authority and accountability ultimately lies with the metropolitan bishop, except for the requirement to report to civil authorities in the case of a crime. In practice, several metropolitan bishops were clear that they typically make use of independent lay expertise but this is not required by the legislation.
Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland, Maine, the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance explains this decision by reference to the motu proprio and canon law: “We’re not going beyond what the Holy Father has given.”
In spite of the calls for more lay involvement in the process, DiNardo sees the model as working. The new rules formalize a system which has been in place this last year and he points to the disciplinary cases of McCarrick and Bransfield as victories. “All the uses of the metropolitan models have been so good, they’ve been so thorough. If there’s been a bump in the road, I think that shows how well and excellently it’s been working since last year.”
In spite of DiNardo’s optimism, the data show that the sex abuse crisis is continuing to be an existential one for the Catholic Church. Pew Research just published a study showing how deep the problem lies: Roughly a quarter of U.S. Catholics have reduced mass attendance or giving to their local parish because of the abuse crisis. Even though many see this as a problem typical of religious groups, 79 percent of U.S. adults see the reports of sex abuse as reflecting ongoing problems within the Church.
Some experts suggest that the true problem of abuse in the Catholic Church lies not in the handling of any particular case, but rather more deeply in the structures that often diminish the role of laity. Kim Smolik, CEO of Leadership Roundtable, an institution which provides lay expertise in the Church, asked in a video interview with Faith In Public Life, “Are we investigating the culture of leadership that allowed this crisis to emerge? That’s the work we need to do now.”
This week, with the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Birmingham, Ala. and the USCCB in Baltimore, Md. — representing the two biggest Christian denominations in the U.S. — held meetings on sex abuse. The Southern Baptist Convention faced unique challenges based on its Baptist ecclesiology for systemically reporting sexual abuse. Though the Southern Baptist Annual Meeting passed statements of concern and stronger mechanisms for excluding churches which mishandled cases of abuse, advocates are calling for a database of accused abusers and mandatory training. Some Baptist leaders fear that these demands would violate their traditional emphasis on local church independence. The Catholic Church likewise faces challenges from its ecclesial structure of transparency and credibility before the watching world. Many of the faithful feel that the Church has proven itself more concerned with its own reputation rather than seeking truth and justice.
The bishops hope that these new policies will prove powerful and effective in nationalizing and systematizing structures already in place. Advocates don’t trust the Church, especially when there is no required lay involvement in the reporting process. A statement from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests lays it out clearly: “Any reform that leaves the ultimate authority for investigating abuse and cover up in the hands of Church officials instead of secular law enforcement is no reform at all.”