As the U.S. bishops prepare to meet next week for their general assembly in Baltimore, they must be hoping it won’t be a repeat of this one.
The bishops were hoping to finalize a tough new policy on child sex abuse and – even more importantly – abuse cover-up, after the Vatican put a halt on the issue during the USCCB’s fall assembly last year. Since then, there has been a Vatican abuse summit and new legislation from the Vatican to battle abuse and cover-up, meaning the possibility of a “good news” ending to the meeting was in the cards.
But now new scandals are likely to overshadow the meeting.
At the beginning of this week, the Associated Press published a story about a woman accusing a top official in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston of sexual misconduct. This story was followed by a Washington Post report on a confidential investigation into impropriety under Bishop Michael Bransfield in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. On Thursday, Crux came out with a story about how various Church institutions passed the buck when a seminarian complained about sexual abuse at the national seminary in Washington, DC.
These stories did not involve the abuse of minors, but did involve sexual impropriety with adults. This means the bishops will be trying to find a solution to one systematic crisis, just as another one is exploding in the papers.
Sexual misconduct with adults is a broad area of offense, especially for a celibate clergy. It can include anything from a brief fling with a willing partner to a sexual assault. Current Vatican legislation generally only covers “vulnerable adults” – that is, those without the full use of reason, although Pope Francis’s most recent law – released in May and called Vos estis lux mundi – defines a vulnerable person as “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offence.”
The new legislation also covers those who are forced into sexual acts by “violence or threat or through abuse of authority.”
Although these are steps in the right direction, it is murky how it will work in practice.
In Houston, a high-ranking archdiocesan official is accused of having an affair with a married woman he was counseling. In Texas, it is a crime for a clergyman to engage in sexual relations with someone by “exploiting the other person’s emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual adviser.”
The woman also said the priest absolved her for their sexual encounter, which is a Church crime carrying a penalty of excommunication, although this is denied by the archdiocese.
In this case, the priest was moved to another diocese. (The archdiocese insists that it acted properly.)
In West Virginia, a Church investigation found that Bransfield, aside from gross financial mismanagement, had “uncovered a consistent pattern of sexual innuendo, and overt suggestive comments and actions toward those over whom the former bishop exercised authority,” although the investigators said they could not prove sexual abuse had happened.
In the Washington seminary case, a seminarian was allegedly abused by a transitional deacon, not by someone in direct authority.
In all these cases, Church leaders had to make decisions without having any specific Church legislation to work with, although – as in the case of Texas – there are civil and criminal laws that can come into play.
This comes up time and time again – clergymen have been caught with prostitutes, had affairs with parishioners, and committed other violations of their promises of celibacy for generations. Bishops will be quick to point out: Not every sin is a crime, and a lapse in judgement shouldn’t be equated with sexual assault.
But the gray between the two can differ in shade.
If a priest has an affair with a parishioner, what are the consequences? If the parishioner is married? If he is counseling the parishioner?
What happens when a priest gets caught up in a prostitution sting? What if he has been arrested more than once?
The same sorts of questions can be asked about possession of pornography, serial affairs, and other subjects that most of the faithful would hope would only feature in soap operas.
Right now, Church leaders seem to follow the same game plan that was in effect for child abuse: Therapy, clergy moves, and payoffs.
Without procedures and transparency, even relatively small sexual mistakes by priests can be conflated with more serious cases of sexual assault, especially in the eyes of a faithful exhausted by years of scandal.
One thing the bishops don’t want to happen is to institute a “one strike” rule for clerics when it comes to sex with adults.
However, in the #MeToo era, hard decisions will have to be made about what can be forgiven, and what will have to have more permanent consequences.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome
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