Bishop Philip Egan of the Diocese of Portsmouth, in southern England, has written to the pope asking him to convene an extraordinary meeting of the Synod of Bishops in the wake of recent scandals.
The letter was sent to Pope Francis on August 22, and published on the website of the Diocese of Portsmouth. Egan says that his suggestion was prompted by the recent scandals of clerical sexual abuse in the United States, especially following the publication of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, as well as in Ireland, Chile and Australia.
“Clerical sex abuse seems to be a world-wide phenomenon in the Church,” Egan wrote to the pope. “As a Catholic and a bishop, these revelations fill me with deep sorrow and shame.”
Egan said that, in addition to expressions of sadness, he felt compelled to offer a more “constructive suggestion” and asked the pope if he would consider calling an Extraordinary Synod on the Life and Ministry of Clergy.
An Extraordinary Synod is smaller than an Ordinary Synod, and the principal participants are the heads of the Eastern Catholic Churches and the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences. Only three have been called in the past: In 1969, 1985, and 2014.
The bishop proposed that such a meeting could be preceded by a “congress” attended by, and intended for bishops but organized and run by members of the laity with particular expertise in clergy abuse scandals and in forming policy for safeguarding children and other vulnerable people.
The results of this meeting, Egan suggested, could be carried into a formal session of the Synod of Bishops in Rome.
Suggested topics for the synod to treat could include discussing the “identity of being a priest [or] bishop,” and devising guidance on “life-style and supports for celibacy,” to proposing a “rule of life for priests [and] bishops” and establishing “appropriate forms of priestly [and] episcopal accountability and supervision.”
Egan said the results of such a synod could be used to inform changes to canon law and help dioceses draft their own “directories for clergy.” He also noted that as a diocesan bishop he had “few tools” to help him in the day-to-day management of clergy, and compared this with the structures and supports which existed in seminaries to help formators assess and develop vocations.
“By contrast, once ordained, priests [and] bishops have few formal on-going assessments or ministerial supervision,” Egan wrote.
“It ought to be possible to devise mechanisms to help bishops in their responsibilities towards clergy and to help clergy realize they are not ‘lone operatives’ but ministers accountable to the direction and leadership of the diocese.”