The moral credibility of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy is under serious scrutiny, both by the faithful and the wider world.
Something must be done – this is the consensus of cardinals, bishops, priests, and laity as the Church continues to grapple with the fallout of the sexual abuse crisis. What, exactly, will be done remains to be seen.
Calls for transparency and accountability in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals strike many of the faithful as reasonable and obvious – yet neither of those words seems easily translatable into the curial language and culture of Romanitas.
Amid an impetus for urgent reform, the Church faces the challenge of taking action that is effective, rather than merely dramatic.
What has been proposed? And what effect might it have?
In recent months, many bishops and lay leaders have called for new canonical structures and procedures in response to the various crises erupting in the Church.
Some have suggested creating another “new” process for accusing and trying bishops in a canon law court, others have floated the idea of a network of regional or national tribunals tasked with handling the existing backlog of clerical sex-abuse cases.
Much of what has been proposed so far, however, has already been tried.
Apart from the USCCB’s own Essential Norms, adopted in the wake of the 2002 sexual abuse crisis, Pope Francis has made a number of significant canonical reforms over the last five years. Most significantly, 2016’s Come una madre amorivole created an entirely new legal mechanism for charging and trying a bishop accused of mishandling allegations of abuse, or of abusing his office in some other way.
Yet despite the publicity surrounding the announcement of those structures, they have yet to be put into action, and are unlikely even to be tried.
When asked recently about particular cases involving bishops, Pope Francis said he had decided that his own reforms were not “practical” or “convenient” and that he was instead trying to preserve their “spirit” in the way he handled individual cases.
Many canonists, including those working in the Curia, have expressed frustration at the possibility that more reforms will be promulgated on paper, while few of them take hold at the practical level.
In the meantime, they say, cases are being handled in an increasingly ad hoc manner. In the case of McCarrick, for example, it has been hard for canonists to parse exactly what procedure is being followed.
Following the announcement by the Archdiocese of New York that it had received an allegation against McCarrick and deemed it credible, the then-cardinal was removed from public ministry.
In July, the Holy Father accepted his resignation from the College of Cardinals – itself an historic event – and at the same time ordered McCarrick to live a life of prayer and penance pending the outcome of a “canonical process.” Canon lawyers have noted that this seemed to be, for good or ill, the imposition of a legal penalty before the legal process had concluded – or perhaps even begun.
There has been no announcement about what kind of “process” will be followed in resolving McCarrick’s case. Nor has the Holy See clarified what charges, exactly, he will face. It seems unclear how a new legal structure could bring clarity to that situation, rather than more confusion.
Another proposal made in recent months has been the establishment of regional commissions and tribunals for handling abuse cases, something which has been suggested before.
Baroness Sheila Hollins, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, has been among the most recent voices to suggest that this might serve to clear the languishing backlog of abuse cases clogging the courts at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The problem she identifies is a serious one.
Following his election in 2013, one of Pope Francis’ first curial reforms was to decree a Vatican-wide hiring freeze, which is still in effect. Since then, the pope has ordered the dismissal of three American priests working on abuse cases in the CDF, with a fourth leaving for personal reasons earlier this year.
Those working within and alongside of the CDF all report that there is simply not enough manpower to process the workload, something that Msgr. Robert Geisinger, the CDF’s in house prosecutor, has lamented more than once.
As a result, more than one U.S. bishop has resorted to flying to Rome to personally petition that cases waiting for adjudication be moved to the top of the pile.
But the proposed regional tribunals would not solve the problem of a backlog, at least not in the short term. New courts would take years to come online, and even longer to prove effective. In the meantime, the structural and procedural upheaval needed to create them could cause chaos in a system that is already badly stretched.
Marie Collins, a former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and herself a survivor of abuse, has been a critic of this proposal for a more straightforward reason. She has observed that the call for regional tribunals does not address the fact that the underlying problem is a lack of resources.
During her time on the PCPM, Collins spoke openly of her frustration at the pace of change. She specifically singled out the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles abuse cases, for criticism. Since then, she has become an outspoken skeptic of further canonical reform, and pointed to the fact that few resources are actually devoted to making the current system work.
“The argument for going to local tribunals…is because the CDF is under resourced and understaffed, and so [is] unable to cope with all the abuse cases coming in from around the world: the question should be why is the CDF under resourced and understaffed?”
One curial official who has worked with the CDF told CNA that some staffers also have the impression that there is little practical commitment to the kind of real reform that would involve the addition of more qualified personnel to handle abuse cases.
“If ‘where your treasure is there will your heart be too,’ then by that measure Rome’s heart isn’t in this,” the official told CNA.
Back in the United States, several ideas for reform have been floated.
One is a third-party reporting mechanism for accusations against bishops, through which people would present allegations directly to the apostolic nuncio in Washington.
But any new third-party reporting system instituted by the U.S. bishops cannot guarantee Roman action, nor does recent evidence indicate that such action could be counted upon.
In the case of Archbishop McCarrick, it has emerged that in 2000 Fr. Boniface Ramsey presented a written account of accusations of McCarrick sharing a bed with seminarians to the nuncio. A 2006 letter from the Vatican Secretariat of State confirms that some of Ramsey’s concerns made it to Rome, but no action was apparently taken until years later.
It has also been suggested that a new lay-led review board could review complaints made against bishops. This idea is not without precedent.
In 2002, the USCCB called for lay-led review boards in every diocese. The U.S. bishops also created a National Review Board comprised of lay experts, to advise the USCCB on dealing with the problem of sexual abuse. Those bodies have had considerable effect on the life and culture of the Church in the United States.
The idea of creating more lay-led boards now is, in some senses, an appealing option. But it is not clear whether new boards would actually address the current problems.
The National Review Board itself has seemed skeptical. In August, the board issued a statement denouncing “a loss of moral leadership and an abuse of power that led to a culture of silence” in the face of abuse.
Action is needed, the board said, but the “evil” which had come to light “will not be stemmed simply by the creation of new committees, policies, or procedures.”
Both U.S. proposals would also appear to effectively insulate American bishops from being required to act upon allegations made against their peers. The reticence of bishops to act in such circumstances is widely considered to have been a major contributing factor in the recent scandals, especially in the case of McCarrick.
But through systems that would largely exempt bishops from investigating or addressing claims of episcopal misconduct, U.S. Church authorities run the risk of seeming to distance themselves further from the kind of personal moral leadership called for by the National Review Board and others.
“What needs to happen is a genuine change in the Church’s culture, specifically among the bishops themselves,” the National Review Board’s August statement said.
Cultural change is more difficult than procedural reform. Absent the release of confidential files or sweeping changes in personnel, it will be hard to demonstrate in the short term. But it also seems to be the most pressing call made by ordinarily lay Catholics.
On Sept. 13, following a meeting between Pope Francis and the leaders of the U.S. bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo released a statement as president of the USCCB. In it, he said that he and the other American bishops looked forward to “actively continuing our discernment together, identifying the most effective next steps.”
What these steps will be, and when the Church will take them, remain to be seen. But the bishops may find that by themselves, they are not enough to satisfy the skepticism shared by lay Catholics and a growing number of rank-and-file priests and religious.
The call has been for leadership. To satisfy it, bishops will likely need to show a commitment to change that is personal, not institutional.