Last November, following the Pennsylvania grand jury allegations of episcopal cover-up in clerical abuse cases, the US bishops met in Baltimore hoping to pass a tougher code of conduct that would involve the lay faithful in episcopal accountability. Before they could begin, Cardinal DiNardo had to announce to his brothers that the Holy See did not want them to pursue any such code, awaiting a February abuse summit in Rome that eventually came and went with a whimper.
On Thursday, however, the Holy Father published the most comprehensive plan to date dealing with bishops on sexual abuse. Vos Estis Lux Mundi — “You are the Light of the World” — is a genuine advance for the Church and a model for other institutions wracked by sexual abuse. It mainly focuses on the protection of minors and “vulnerable adults”, but crucially, it includes protections for seminarians and religious who can be exploited and coerced under the sway of superiors. In other words, the Pope not only wants to ensure this never happens again to children, but also adults under authority, like those seminarians “Uncle Ted” McCarrick used to take to his infamous beach house.
There is much to praise in the document. The Holy Father even provides penalties for bishops who fail to properly report and investigate. But the procedures for reporting and investigating bishops remain, somewhat incredibly, solely in the hands of bishops. The “metropolitan plan” — championed by Cardinal Cupich at the last US bishops’ meeting — largely keeps lay involvement at a discretionary minimum, while not excluding greater involvement if bishops so choose.
In a New York Post column, JD Flynn, editor-in-chief of the Catholic News Agency, shows how the Pope’s plan differs from the November proposals of the US bishops. More importantly, however, he also shows how those proposals might complement and implement the Holy Father’s plan.
“The plan deviates, though, from proposals the US bishops have made for dealing with abuse or negligence among their ranks. Their plans put independent lay experts at the center of investigations, charged with using their experiences in law enforcement, criminal prosecution, management and psychology to dig in to serious complaints against bishops.
“The American episcopate hoped that seeking recommendations from autonomous lay bodies would ensure a measure of accountability for their own actions and bring at least some transparency to internal church discipline processes. The US bishops know that McCarrick’s misdeeds were reported to church officials multiple times, to little effect, and they understand how much that has damaged their credibility as pastors of souls.
“In the US, lay people have been involved in investigations of priestly abuse since 2002. The bishops know that such involvement has led to a cultural shift in the church on child protection and transformed Catholic environments into some of the safest anywhere for minors.
“But the pope’s new policy, while allowing for ‘qualified’ lay Catholics to assist in the investigation of bishops, is a process mostly reserved to senior bishops. Although the Holy Father has condemned ‘clericalism’ for enabling abuse, his plan is largely a clerical one and doesn’t require lay collaboration, involvement or accountability.”
The US bishops will meet again next month, once again in Baltimore. They should pick up where they left off, and return to the proposals which they intended to discuss last November concerning their own deep commitment to lay involvement. As Flynn notes, there is nothing in the Holy Father’s plan which prevents them from resolving to use lay review boards in the investigations of bishops.
The shepherds need to regain the trust of their flock. They need to show that we are all in this together. Joining their plan for lay review boards to the Holy Father’s reforms would show that our communion makes each of us co-responsible for the holiness of the Church on pilgrimage to the City of God.
C C Pecknold is Associate Professor of Theology, and a Fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology, at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC
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