After the conclusion of the unprecedented Vatican summit on child abuse last week, one issue that was repeated was “accountability.” However, despite this mantra, the problem of what to do with bishops who have themselves been accused of abuse remains.
Right now, bishops can be judged by the pope alone. Although a special tribunal to handle accusations against bishops was authorized by Pope Francis, he later backtracked and decided to use specially constituted bodies in cases against bishops.
The U.S. bishops had proposed a plan to constitute a special lay review panel to receive and investigate complaints against bishops, but the Vatican squashed the idea, saying there was not enough time to review it in Rome and overcome the difficulties of reconciling the plan with Church law.
However, a plan by one U.S. archbishop to give more power to archbishops in dealing with accusations against members of the hierarchy looks like it is gaining favor in Rome.
The so-called “metropolitan model” was first suggested by Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago during the USCCB meeting in November, after the vote on the original plan of a national lay review board was stopped by the Vatican.
Cupich gave more details of the proposal on Feb. 22, during a press conference at the Vatican summit.
Basically, the metropolitan archbishop – now a largely symbolic role – would be in charge of investigating abuse complaints against the bishops in his territory, called a province.
The archbishop would coordinate this investigation with the local diocesan review board, which investigates allegations of abuse against priests and deacons in the diocese. The results would be sent to the Vatican.
Under the proposal, an alternative bishop – perhaps the neighboring metropolitan or the senior diocesan bishop in the province – would be named to investigate any allegation against the metropolitan archbishop.
The Chicago cardinal also insisted that lay experts would be part of the investigation process, just as they are in the process when accusations are made against priests and deacons. In fact, the initial complaint would be made to a lay-controlled apparatus – which could be a hotline, website, or something similar – before being passed on to the metropolitan and papal representative.
There are several positive aspects to this proposal:
1) It keeps everything more local, so victims and the accused bishop can better keep track of what is happening. Currently, any Church investigation involving a bishop is handled at the Vatican. Cupich said this was especially important when considering the pastoral care a victim would need.
2) The process should be more transparent, especially if the Vatican changes current policies of using the “pontifical secret” during trials.
3) It would take much of the burden off of the Vatican, which despite rumors to the contrary, doesn’t have the resources to conduct a lot of investigations around the world. The understaffed offices in Rome would benefit if much of the grunt work was organized at the local level.
4) It would be authentically synodal. “Synodality” has become the main buzzword of the Francis Pontificate, but like “solidarity” under St. John Paul II, its definition is often malleable to the speaker’s intentions. However, in the Eastern Churches, as well as some protestant communions, the synod is primarily a law-making and disciplinary body, often focused on the metropolitan archbishop.
If functioning properly, the “metropolitan model” would offer a more responsive, efficient, and credible way of investigating bishops accused of sexual abuse. It could also be a first step in reinvigorating the role of the archbishop in the life of the Church.
However, the Vatican would still have to answer some questions if the proposal is to gain popular support:
1) Right now, a process without the significant participation of lay people would not be considered credible to most observers. Although lay involvement has been promised, it has not been clearly defined how laypeople will be involved beyond acting as experts.
2) Practically speaking, metropolitan archbishops often have a lot of say in who becomes bishops in their province. The “metropolitan model” depends on archbishops being seen as objective – but if the archbishop is the person responsible to the career of an accused bishop, many would think he had a vested interest in protecting his protégé.
3) This is especially true when a metropolitan is accused, because the senior bishop in his province often got his job through the influence of the archbishop. The handling of accusations against an archbishop is the fuzziest part of the “metropolitan model” and the one that needs the most clarity.
4) The biggest problem facing the model is the lack of trust people have in the bishops right now. The national review panel originally proposed by the U.S. bishops was an acknowledgement of this fact. The “metropolitan model” is, in effect, the bishops saying, “Don’t worry. You can trust us.”
This might be why the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said the final proposal for an accountability system for bishops – expected in June – would still involve parts of the initial proposal last November, although the bishops would “tweak some things.” He said the final proposal would “put the two together,” meaning the review board and the enhanced role of archbishops.
It remains to be seen if that will assuage the concerns surrounding the “metropolitan model.”