It’s been a rough year for the Catholic Bishops in the United States.
Several – including a former cardinal –have been accused of sexual harassment and other misconduct. Other bishops have allegedly covered up the sins and crimes of other clergy.
Since the sexual abuse crisis escalated last summer, more than one in four of Americans Catholics say they have scaled back Mass attendance or cut donations to their parish, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.
This week, at their annual meeting in Baltimore, the bishops said they’ve received the message.
“We, the bishops of the United States, have heard the anger expressed by so many within and outside of the church over these failures,” the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement overwhelmingly approved Thursday by 229 voting bishops.
“The anger is justified; it has humbled us, prompting us into self-examination, repentance and a desire to do better.”
At their spring meeting, the country’s Catholic bishops showed how they’ll try to translate that desire into action. Traditionally, bishops have held a great deal of autonomy in their diocese, with only the Pope providing oversight. But in a brisk, businesslike manner, the US Catholic bishops adopted four measures designed to create more accountability, transparency and trust with lay Catholics.
On Wednesday, the bishops voted to create a 1-800-hotline and website to field complaints of misconduct by bishops. The hotlines will be monitored by a third-party, according to the resolution, which will forward allegations to the senior archbishop in the region, the Vatican’s US ambassador and to civil authorities, if criminal activity is alleged. The measure passed by a vote of 205-16.
A day later, the bishops adopted a protocol outlining steps they can take to restrict retired bishops who were “removed for or resigned from their office for a grave reason,” including sexual abuse or covering up misconduct.
Bishops, the protocols say, can restrict a retired bishops’ right to preach and celebrate sacraments, deny their burial in church cathedrals and cut funds for travel or “secretarial assistance.”
In many ways, that measure was a response to revelations about Theodore McCarrick, the former Cardinal archbishop of Washington, who was defrocked by Pope Francis in February after a series of accusations that he had slept with seminarians and sexually abused minors. McCarrick has denied the charges.
The bishops’ reputations took another hit last week when an internal church report obtained by the Washington Post accused West Virginia’s former bishop of sexually harassing young priests and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on luxury items and gifts to powerful clerics. Bishop Michael Bransfield, who was removed from ministry last March, denied the accusations, saying he looks forward to his Vatican trial.
The ‘metropolitan model’
On Thursday in Baltimore, the Catholic bishops approved a plan to implement new church laws Pope Francis issued in May regarding the sexual abuse of minors and other vulnerable people, as well as church leaders who mishandle such accusations.
That plan centers on the “metropolitan,” the senior archbishop in a church province. In the United States, the 196 dioceses (each overseen by a bishop) are grouped into 32 provinces. The archbishops who head those provinces will be tasked with leading investigations into bishops and giving the information to the Vatican to render a final decision.
Before the vote on the proposal, some Catholics, including Francis Cesareo, the head of the USCCB’s National Review Board, said the plan essentially trusts bishops to police themselves.
“Not involving laity with competence and expertise in leading the review process would signal a continuation of a culture of self-preservation that would suggest complicity,” Cesareo said in an address to the bishops on Tuesday.
Much of the debate between then and Thursday, when the bishops voted on the proposal, centered on the role of lay Catholics. Several bishops and other Catholic leaders insisted that non-clergy must be involved in the investigations if the process is to be trusted.
“Lay involvement should be mandatory to ensure that we bishops do not harm the church, especially in the ways that we have learned about during the past year,” said Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri.
McKnight’s comments were applauded by the other bishops.
To that end, Cardinal Blasé Cupich of Chicago, one of the Pope’s key allies in the United States, suggested amending the proposal to codify how and when lay people should be involved in investigating bishops. (Under church law, only the Pope has ultimate oversight of the bishops.)
Cupich’s amendment, which passed by voice vote on Thursday, urges each Metropolitan to appoint a qualified lay person to receive reports of misconduct by bishops. That person would also be responsible for informing the public about how to report cases involving bishops. Another amendment, offered by McKnight and also approved by the bishops, makes clear that the Metropolitan should appoint a lay person to help run the investigation itself.
The “metropolitan model” worked well, Catholic leaders here said, in the Bransfield investigation, which was run by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore with help from five lay investigators, some of whom were not Catholic.
But even the Bransfield report was stained by scandal.
Lori apologized for editing the report to omit the fact that he and other bishops had received tens of thousands of dollars in gifts from Bransfield. He pledged to return $7,500 to West Virginia Catholic charities.
“If I had to do it over again, especially at a time when we are trying to create greater accountability and transparency, the report would’ve included the names of those bishops who received gifts, including my own,” Lori said in a video statement.
Finally, all but one of the bishops here voted to approve what is essentially a re-affirmation of their vows as bishops, with a special focus on the abuse crisis. In some ways, the document “Affirming Our Episcopal Commitments” is a road map for how the bishops plan to rebuild trust amid a crisis that has cost hundreds of millions in legal settlements and much more, perhaps, in moral capital.
The US Catholic bishops’ 10 commitments
1. To reach out to clergy sex-abuse survivors and their families, helping them find healing and care.
2. To follow the Pope’s new guidelines on holding bishops accountable to “higher moral standards.”
3. To publicize information about how people can make accusations of sexual abuse by bishops.
4. To include lay people in investigating misconduct by bishops.
5. To amend church codes of conduct to explicitly include bishops and all who work for the church.
6. To ensure that these codes of conduct clearly explain what constitutes sexual misconduct and harassment of adults.
7. To live chastely, with no “double” or “secret” lives.
8. To put the needs of the people making accusations of abuse above institutional concerns, including cooperation with lay experts and civil authorities.
9. To attend seminars and other church gatherings to learn best practices for dealing with sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable persons.
10. To recommend to the Vatican only proposed bishops “truly suited for the episcopacy.”