At conference in Baltimore, USCCB passes three measures in response to abuse crisis

Catholic News Agency

By Ed Condon/Catholic News Agency

The U.S. bishops’ conference voted Thursday to approve proposals intended to respond to recent scandals involving sexual abuse, coercion, and cover-up on the part of bishops, most notably former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the disgraced Bishop Michael Bransfield.

The bishops, gathered in Baltimore for their spring General Assembly, voted overwhelmingly in favor of three measures aimed at building processes to address episcopal misconduct or neglect, and the ongoing crisis of credibility widely perceived to overshadow ongoing work to eliminate sexual abuse from the Church.

The assembly approved protocol explaining the powers of a diocesan bishop to curtail the public ministry of a retired bishop in his former diocese by a margin of 212-4.

They also approved a set of directives applying in the U.S. the new universal norms for investigating allegations against bishops promulgated by Pope Francis in Vos estis lux mundi.  After initial discussion earlier this week, they were presented to bishops June 13 with an explicit exhortation for metropolitan bishops to appoint “on a stable basis, even by means of an ecclesiastical office, a qualified lay person” to receive allegations against bishops and work with the metropolitan in any subsequent investigation.

The directives were approved by 218-1.

The bishops also approved a joint statement, “Affirming Our Episcopal Commitments,” establishing a non-binding moral commitment by bishops to hold themselves to the same standards and measures as are currently applied to their priests and deacons. That document passed by a similarly wide margin of 217-1.

The consensus in favor of the measures was unsurprising. After the bishops were prevented by Rome from adopting similar proposals in November, the majority of bishops returned to Baltimore ready to vote.

The widespread agreement in favor of the three documents was reflected in the much-abbreviated discussion which preceded each vote. With relatively little debate, the bishops finished their morning session more than an hour ahead of schedule, even after adding business they’d intended to address in the afternoon.

As in the previous discussions on Tuesday, several bishops raised the need for clearly established lay involvement in the process of handling complaints against bishops. Changes to the text of the implementation directives for Vos estis were highlighted as a response to those concerns, something Cardinal Joseph Tobin noted was a “clear expectation” of Vos estis itself.

Bishops Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City said that mandatory lay involvement is essential “to make darn sure we bishops do not harm the Church” in the ways seen in recent cases.

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler was the only bishop to raise directly the issue of Theodore McCarrick during the session, insisting that “a full reckoning” still needed to be made for the former cardinal’s career but that he had “been assured that the Holy See is working on that.”

On the specific point of whether lay people should be assigned formal, canonically governed “ecclesiastical offices” in order to assist metropolitans, Archbishop Bernard Hebda noted that the drafting committee thought it better to leave that as an option. In some places, he noted, metropolitans might find it best to include a non-Catholic (ineligible for formal ecclesiastical office) in the process if their expertise “offered the greatest possibilities for accountability.”

Several bishops, most insistently Bishop Jaime Soto, raised the prospect of an independent auditing process to track and assess the U.S. implementation of Vos estis over the three-year trial period.

Bishop Robert Deeley explained to the conference that the independent third-party reporting mechanism, approved by the bishops on Wednesday, was itself a form of a self-auditing system with every complaint being tracked, though there were limits to how much the bishops could assess the effectiveness of what was a papal law.

“I think the committee agrees with you that an [assessment] process will have to be done,” Deeley said, but it was not for the U.S. bishops to decide how to evaluate the essential role of the Holy See in the process and implementation of its own norms.

Related to Rome’s role in the process of handling an allegation, several bishops noted that Vos estis provided for a response from Rome “within 30 days,” something Bishop Mark O’Connell, an auxiliary bishop of Boston, called an “intolerable” amount of time for a reporting Metropolitan to be unable to advance the case.

Deeley responded by noting that Rome had committed itself to responding “within not after” 30 days, and that the experience of many bishops was that when circumstances required it, the different Roman dicasteries were respond considerably faster. The longer time period was a reflection of the universal application of Vos estis, which would have to accommodate regions where communication could be more fractured and difficult.

Deeley noted that there had been four investigations into U.S. bishops conducted by metropolitans in recent months, including McCarrick and Bransfield, and that the successful way in which they had been concluded was a sign of the effectiveness of the new model. “That gives me confidence,” Deeley told the bishops.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles told the bishops that “the Holy See is aware of the urgency of this matter,” and commended the passage of the directives to the conference.

After the passage of the abuse-related measures and the conclusion of some other conference matters, the bishops concluded the public portion of their meeting and convened an executive session.

Featured Image by Kate Veik/CNA

COMING UP: A last chance for Australian justice

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My late parents loved Cardinal George Pell, whom they knew for decades. So I found it a happy coincidence that, on November 12 (which would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary), a two-judge panel of Australia’s High Court referred to the entire Court the cardinal’s request for “special leave” to appeal his incomprehensible conviction on charges of “historic sexual abuse,” and the even-more-incomprehensible denial of his appeal against that manifestly unsafe verdict.

Thus in 2020 the highest judicial authority in Australia will review the Pell case, which gives the High Court the opportunity to reverse a gross injustice and acquit the cardinal of a hideous crime: a “crime” that Pell insists never happened; a “crime” for which not a shred of corroborating evidence has yet been produced; a “crime” that simply could not have happened in the circumstances and under the conditions it was alleged to have been committed.

Since Cardinal Pell’s original appeal was denied in August by two of three judges on an appellate panel in the State of Victoria, the majority decision to uphold Pell’s conviction has come under withering criticism for relying primarily on the credibility of the alleged victim. As the judge who voted to sustain the cardinal’s appeal pointed out (in a dissent that one distinguished Australian attorney described as the most important legal document in that country’s history), witness credibility – a thoroughly subjective judgment-call – is a very shaky standard by which to find someone guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It has also been noted by fair-minded people that the dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, is the most respected criminal jurist in Australia, while his two colleagues on the appellate panel had little or no criminal law experience. Weinberg’s lengthy and devastating critique of his two colleagues’ shallow arguments seemed intended to signal the High Court that something was seriously awry here and that the reputation of Australian justice – as well as the fate of an innocent man – was at stake.

Other recent straws in the wind Down Under have given hope to the cardinal’s supporters that justice may yet be done in his case.

Andrew Bolt, a television journalist with a nationwide audience, walked himself through the alleged series of events at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, within the timeframe in which they were supposed to have occurred, and concluded that the prosecution’s case, and the decisions by both the convicting jury and the majority of the appeal panel, simply made no sense. What was supposed to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did.

Australians willing to ignore the vicious anti-Pell polemics that have fouled their country’s public life for years also heard from two former workers at the cathedral, who stated categorically that what was alleged to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did, because they were a few yards away from Cardinal Pell at the precise time he was alleged to have abused two choirboys.

Then there was Anthony Charles Smith, a veteran criminal attorney (and not a Catholic), who wrote in Annals Australasia that the Pell verdict and the denial of his appeal “curdles my stomach.” How, he asked, could a guilty verdict be rendered on “evidence….so weak and bordering on the preposterous?” The only plausible answer, he suggested, was that Pell’s “guilt” was assumed by many, thanks to “an avalanche of adverse publicity” ginned up by “a mob baying for Pell’s blood” and influencing “a media [that] should always be skeptical.”

Even more strikingly, the left-leaning Saturday Paper, no friend of Cardinal Pell or the Catholic Church, published an article in which Russell Marks – a one-time research assistant on an anti-Pell book – argued that the two judges on the appellate panel who voted to uphold the cardinal’s conviction “effectively allowed no possible defense for Pell: there was nothing his lawyers could have said or done, because the judges appeared to argue it was enough to simply believe the complainant on the basis of his performance under cross examination.”

The Australian criminal justice system has stumbled or failed at every stage of this case. The High Court of Australia can break that losing streak, free an innocent man, and restore the reputation of Australian justice in the world. Whatever the subsequent fallout from the rabid Pell-haters, friends of justice must hope that that is what happens when the High Court hears the cardinal’s case – Australia’s Dreyfus Case – next year.

Photo: CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images