BALTIMORE — As the U.S. Catholic bishops gathered for a closely watched meeting with the hopes of enacting new standards for bishop accountability, debate over the role lay people could have in their oversight dominated day one of the gathering.
While the bishops are slated to vote on new proposals modeled after Pope Francis’s new ‘motu proprio’, Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”), as discussions got underway on Tuesday, it became evident that both bishops and the lay experts had serious concerns that the current extent of lay involvement may not be enough to satisfy frustrated lay Catholics who have grown skeptical of the Church’s handling of abuse.
The new universal Church law now makes it mandatory for all clerics and members of religious orders to report cases of clerical sexual abuse to Church authorities, including when committed by bishops or cardinals.
The proposals put before the bishops, meant to enact Vos estis in the context of the United States, would establish a national third-party reporting system to receive complaints of abuse or cover-up and then report it to the appropriate ecclesial authorities. Further, it invests the metropolitan archbishop with the authority to carry out an investigation into a bishop, noting that it is “highly encouraged” for him to “avail himself of an investigator” which could include a number of lay experts, and it leaves it up to the local province to finance the investigation.
Francesco Cesareo, head of the National Review Board (NRB), said that the NRB “remains uncomfortable with allowing bishops to review allegations against other bishops as this essentially means bishops policing bishops.”
The NRB was established in 2002 by the USCCB to monitor the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, known as the Dallas Charter, which established protocols for the U.S. Church to respond to abuse allegations.
Cesareo went on to say that “lay involvement is key to restoring the credibility of the Church which includes a commitment to transparency. 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.”
He insisted that the directives being voted on specify that the involvement of the laity in investigating must be made mandatory rather than as a recommendation.
Also raising concerns was Colonel Anita Rianes, the chair of the National Advisory Council (NAC) which advises the administrative committee of the USCCB, who said that a theological reflection on the crisis of cover-up and scandal must be provided beyond a mere administrative response.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, and one of the chief proponents of the regional oversight model, took to the floor to note that Vos estis allows for establishment of an “ecclesiastical office” to investigate complaints and suggested that “institutionalizes” lay involvement in the process.
During a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Bishop Robert Deeley, who serves as chair of the USCCB’s canonical affairs committee, defended the current proposals, stating that “we are publishing directives as to how a particular document is to be implemented,” referring to the pope’s motu proprio.
“You can’t put into legislation what is not already in the governing document,” he said, noting that the vigorous discussion on Tuesday was the result of more than 5 hours of work on Monday within the committee, which had already discussed many of the proposals raised during the morning session.
Deeley said that recent uses of the metropolitan to investigate bishops has proven that the model works, citing both former priest and former cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington and Bishop Michael Bransfield of Charleston-Wheeling, West Virginia.
Bishop Michael Burbidge, chair of the USCCB’s communications committee, insisted that the discussions underway are about how to better engage lay people in the process more often, not less.
At the start of the meeting, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB, said that the bishops had gathered to “further the work of rooting the evil of sexual abuse from our Church.”
“This week we continue a journey that will not end until there is not once instance of sexual abuse in our Church,” he continued.
This past March, DiNardo suffered what was described as a “mild stroke” and this meeting marks his first major public appearance since that time. In addition to health complications, the still recovering Texas cardinal has been plagued by recent allegations in his archdiocese of Galveston-Houston that he mishandled a sexual misconduct case involving his former deputy by transferring him to another diocese instead of removing him from ministry.
DiNardo refused to address the specifics of that case at a press conference on Tuesday, stating that he had “intense disagreements” over the manner in which it had been reported and adding that he has a long record of fighting abuse.
He, too, defended the metropolitan model and said that while it has taken time to reach this point, “I can’t help but feel a certain amount of hope in light of all of this.”
Monsignor Walter Erbi, the charges d’affaires of the Vatican nunciature, also delivered remarks from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the pope’s representative to the United States.
Pierre is currently in Rome for a gathering of all of the Church’s nuncios with Pope Francis, but he used his remarks to make a strong case that the U.S. bishops had benefited from the Vatican’s request to delay last November’s vote for new bishop accountability guidelines until after this past February’s summit of the heads of bishops’ conferences from around the globe.
“A rush to judgment, even for the sake of transparency, is never a guarantee of justice or a good result,” he said.
While Pierre’s remarks did not go into specifics of how lay people should be involved in the process of oversight, he said that “the Church needs to listen to the voices and insights of the lay faithful, to make visible the multi-faceted richness of the Church and to engage in a shared process with diversified responsibilities.”
“A bishop cannot think that matters concerning the Church can be resolved by acting alone or exclusively among peers,” he added.
As the meeting kicked off on Tuesday, Pew Research Center released a new study which found that more than a quarter of U.S. Catholics have scaled back their Mass attendance as a result of the latest wave of the abuse crisis, adding further urgency for many bishops in their desire to turn a page on the crisis.
On Wednesday, the U.S. bishops will have regional meetings to discuss the motu proprio before the full body of bishops votes on Thursday.
A two-thirds majority will be required to pass the proposals.
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.