Restoring, and strengthening, episcopal credibility

George Weigel

Pope Francis’s recent motu proprio on sexual abuse, Vos estis lux mundi [You Are the Light of the World], was a welcome addition to Church law, as world Catholicism seeks to heal the wounds of abuse victims, promote chaste living, foster mutual accountability within the Body of Christ, and restore the credibility of the Church’s leadership. The response to the motu proprio by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, ably summed up that document’s achievement:

Vos estis lux mundi calls for the establishment of easily accessible reporting systems, clear standards for the pastoral support of victims and their families, timeliness and thoroughness of investigations, whistleblower protection for those making allegations, and active involvement of the laity. It also leaves latitude for national bishops’ conferences, such as the USCCB, to specify still more to account for local circumstances…Vos estis lux mundi…[is] is a blessing that will empower the Church everywhere to bring predators to justice, no matter what rank they hold in the Church. It also permits the Church the time and opportunity to bring spiritual healing.”

The motu proprio is also a vindication of the Church in the United States and its bishops. Many of its provisions for handling abuse cases have been common practice in the U.S. since 2002 (and in some American dioceses, earlier than that). Amidst the frustration that has boiled over here this past year, too many American Catholics, misled by irresponsible reporting or grandstanding by state officials, may not realize that the Church in the United States has been a world leader in addressing the sin and crime of clerical sexual abuse. This leadership has not always been welcomed, in Rome and elsewhere. But much of what was pioneered in the United States is now universal Church law. By making abuse-reporting obligatory and providing canonical protection for clerics reporting abuse, Pope Francis has improved on the American achievement of the past decade and a half.

As Cardinal DiNardo noted, Vos estis lux mundi not only universalizes strong legal and procedural norms for dealing with clerical sexual abuse; it also allows, and might even be seen to call for, creativity on the part of national bishops’ conferences to build on the foundation Pope Francis has laid. That “latitude for national bishops’ conferences…to specify still more” should now be utilized by the U.S. bishops at their June meeting: to honor the Pope’s invitation to devise particular solutions for particular situations, according to the Holy Father’s principle of “synodality”; to meet the expectations of the most dedicated, committed Catholics in the United States; and to offer the world Church further models to consider. Vos estis lux mundi, like the particular Church law in place in the United States since the abuse crisis of 2002, deals primarily with sexual abuse by priests. The next steps in this process of Catholic reform involve devising mechanisms for guaranteeing episcopal accountability, in terms of both a bishop’s personal conduct and his handling of abuse allegations in the diocese entrusted to his care.

There seems to be a consensus, in Rome and the U.S., that these mechanisms should operate at the level of Church “provinces,” with the metropolitan archbishop of each ecclesiastical province as the responsible party (or the senior suffragan bishop in a province, if the metropolitan archbishop is being charged with an offense). To make that mechanism credible, and to provide the metropolitan archbishops the assistance they need in handling allegations against other bishops, three more provisions seem necessary:

1. Lay Catholics — presumably the archdiocesan review board of the province in question — must be informed of an allegation against a bishop, from the point at which that allegation is made to the metropolitan archbishop. Such a requirement embodies the principle of mutual accountability within the Church while protecting the metropolitan archbishop from any future suggestion that he is burying an allegation to protect a brother bishop.

2. Competent and discreet lay professionals should be involved in the investigation of any allegation against a bishop.

3. It must be guaranteed that, when the entire process has been completed in the U.S. and Rome, and a decision reached, there will be a public explanation of the decision and the rationale for it, perhaps released through the relevant archdiocesan review board.

Adopting these provisions in June will accelerate the healing of a wounded Church and enhance the bishops’ credibility, while heeding the Pope’s call for local creativity.

Featured image by Vatican Media

COMING UP: Repenting and renewing our role as shepherds

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Jesus tells the disciples in St. John’s Gospel, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” contrasting his goodness with the thieves who come only to steal and destroy.  This past week my fellow U.S. bishops and I sought to act as good shepherds by approving three measures to increase our vigilance and prevention of the evil of sexual abuse by bishops, shepherds who have betrayed the flock entrusted to them.

This last weekend we celebrated Father’s Day, which should remind biological and spiritual fathers of their great responsibility of protecting and raising up new life. This mission is further emphasized by the Rite for the Ordination of a Bishop, which says, “In the Church entrusted to you, be a faithful steward, moderator and guardian of the mysteries of Christ. Since you are chosen by the Father to rule over his family, be mindful always of the Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep and is known by them, and who did not hesitate to lay down his life for them.” This is the model for all bishops.

But the scandals of Theodore McCarrick, Bishop Bransfield and others have made it clear that our vigilance has not been adequate. To quote from the just-issued “Affirming Our Episcopal Commitment” statement, “We, the bishops of the United States, have heard the anger expressed by so many within and outside of the Church over these failures.  The anger is justified; it has humbled us, prompting us into self-examination, repentance, and a desire to do better.” This sentiment was clear in my interactions with my fellow bishops in Baltimore this past week.

As evidence of our commitment, we overwhelmingly passed a set of directives for the bishops’ conference to implement Pope Francis’ Vos estis lux mundi document on handling abuse by priests and bishops. These directives include the creation by May 31, 2020 of a third-party phone and online system that receives reports of potential violations by bishops, the establishment of a protocol in which the Holy See designates and authorizes metropolitan archbishops to investigate cases of alleged abuse by bishops, and the expectation that the investigating bishop involve lay experts in assisting with these inquiries. For any investigations that falls under my jurisdiction, I will ensure that lay experts are involved, as I’ve done throughout my time as a bishop. As the new directives indicate, I will also appoint a lay person to receive complaints from the third-party reporting system, publicize how to make reports, ascertain the credibility of reports and gather any additional information necessary for an investigation to commence.

I also want to highlight that the bishops overwhelmingly approved protocols for imposing limitations on former bishops who were removed from office for grave reasons and that we adopted a code of conduct for bishops, which explicitly states that the Dallas Charter will now include bishops.

All these measures are in addition to those we have been enforcing since 2002 in relation to preventing sexual abuse of minors by priests. The Archdiocese of Denver has a strong track record of actively working to protect children, including annual audits, background checks of employees and clergy, and a code of conduct that previous bishops and I have all signed, and a robust training program aimed at fostering safe environments for children. The effectiveness of these measures over the past 20 years has made us a model for other institutions seeking to combat abuse.

Pope Francis rightly noted in a January 2019 personal letter to the U.S. bishops that the consequences of our failures cannot be fixed by being administrators of new programs or committees.  They can only be resolved by humility, listening, self-examination and conversion.

My brother bishops and I hope that by obeying the Word of God, seeking the will of the Father and embracing what the Church expects of us, we will imitate Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Read more

Pope Francis’ motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi can be read at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/papa-francesco-motu-proprio-20190507_vos-estis-lux-mundi.html

The USCCB Directives implementing Vos estis can be read at: http://www.usccb.org/about/leadership/usccb-general-assembly/2019-june-meeting/upload/usccb-modified-amended-directives-2019-06.pdf

Reach out

Christi Sullivan serves as the Protection Specialist for the Office of Child and Youth Protection and can be reached at 303-715-3241 or Christi.Sullivan@archden.org.

Victims of abuse can reach out to Dr. Jim Langley, the Victim Assistance Coordinator, at 720-239-2832 or Victim.Assistance@ArchDen.org.