Sojourners Magazine

June 18, 2019

By Greg Williams

“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.”

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