Since news broke about sexual abuse and misconduct charges against now ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in June, the primary question had been what accountability measures would follow if the charges turned out to have merit. The widespread sense was that Pope Francis would need to set an example, to show that no one in the Catholic system is “untouchable” where child protection is concerned.

The second, and equally immediate, question was which U.S. bishops may have known of the charges against McCarrick, or at least suspected, and what they did with that information when they received it. It’s basically a tripartite inquiry: Who knew? When did they know? What did they do, either at the time or since?

The Vatican, for all intents and purposes, answered the first question on July 28, announcing that Francis had accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals – an historic first in the United States for any reason, and a first globally for a cardinal facing sex abuse charges. A statement also confirmed that a canonical trial is underway, which, if McCarrick is found guilty, could end in his expulsion from the priesthood.

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Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), tried to answer the second question yesterday, but only sort-of, and in a way that’s ultimately unlikely to satisfy demands at the Catholic grassroots to see the bishops take ownership of the situation.

DiNardo issued a four-part statement on the McCarrick situation on Wednesday, the third point of which touched on the accountability issue. Here’s what it said:

“The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will pursue the many questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick’s conduct to the full extent of its authority; and where that authority finds its limits, the conference will advocate with those who do have the authority. One way or the other, we are determined to find the truth in this matter.”

As far as it goes, that’s encouraging, to the extent it indicates the bishops are aware the ball’s in their court and are not dislodging responsibility to Rome, or conveniently invoking cooperation with civil authorities to evade their own duty to examine themselves. It’s heartening, for sure, to hear the bishops express determination to get to the truth.

However, the obvious omissions in the DiNardo statement are:

  • Any indication of what process the bishops will employ to “pursue the many questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick’s conduct.”
  • Any sense of who will be involved in that probe, and how they were chosen.
  • When the probe will get underway, what time period for the work is envisioned, and when the full conference and the Catholic public can expect a report.

Perhaps it was premature to address those points in Wednesday’s statement, especially if, as the wording seemed to suggest, the executive committee of the conference had only recently met to agree on the broad outlines of a response.

However, that information is going to have to be forthcoming soon, because simply saying to the public “we’ve got it under control” isn’t going to cut it. People will need to know what’s being done, who’s doing it, and how long they’re going to have to wait before answers start to flow.

Although the Catholic grassroots in America is long since accustomed to fresh outbreaks of scandal, the McCarrick case has hit especially hard for a couple of fairly obvious reasons.

First, he was a cardinal. It’s not the idea that a Prince of the Church could be guilty of sin that truly shocks anyone – Catholics long ago learned to be realists on such matters – but the sense that preferential treatment may have been involved. If so, that would seriously undercut claims of a uniform “zero tolerance” policy.

Second, the watchword in commentary on the McCarrick fiasco from the beginning has been “everyone knew.” For most Catholics, the face-value question in response is, “If everyone knew, why didn’t anyone do something until now?”

Answering that question at this stage is primarily the responsibility of the American bishops, not the Vatican or anyone else. To regain credibility, the bishops will need not only to look into it, but to be transparent and accountable for the way in which they do so. Whatever answers they offer will carry the exact same credibility as the process employed to produce them.

As a further point, the bishops probably will need to establish a clear process for reporting allegations against fellow bishops. Right now, the ordinary Catholic knows where to take complaints against priests, but may be flummoxed about where to go when the charge involves a bishop.

Wednesday’s statement is an encouraging start, but a good deal more is likely to be required before anyone is terribly inclined to give the bishops points for trying.