Rev. Thomas Reese on American Catholic Bishops Adopting Process for Reviewing Sexual Misconduct by Clergy

Robert Deeley, left, Bishop of the Diocese of Portland, Maine, accompanied by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks during a news conference at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2019 spring meetings in Baltimore, Md., Tues., June 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

In response to recent accusations of episcopal misconduct, the U.S. Catholic bishops have adopted a process for reporting and investigating allegations of sexual misconduct and coverup by bishops.

The directives adopted overwhelmingly by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their meeting this week in Baltimore, Md., implement the papal apostolic letter “Vos estis lux mundi” (“You are the light of the world”), issued after the summit on clergy sexual abuse convened by the pope in Rome in February.

The bishops also voted to affirm their commitment to be covered by the 2002 Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which many people complained applied only to priests and not bishops.

Another document laid out the power that a diocesan bishop has for dealing with a retired bishop living in his diocese if he was involved in misconduct. For example, the diocesan bishop can refuse to let him do priestly work in the diocese.

Critics have questioned the new system because it involves bishops investigating bishops, but the bishops have promised to involve lay experts in the process, just as they already involve the laity in the process of investigating priests.

“Lay involvement should be mandatory to make darn sure that we bishops do not harm the church in the way bishops have harmed the church, especially what we have become aware of this past year,” said Bishop Shawn McKnight, bishop of Jefferson City, Mo.

Bishop Robert Deeley of Maine, chair of the USCCB Committee on Canonical Affairs, responded that the bishops’ conference could not mandate lay involvement but could strongly encourage it.

In response to a question from Jack M. Jenkins of Religion News Service, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark noted that at a meeting of archbishops this week the question was asked, “Does anyone here believe that you can do justice to what the church expects of us or what civil society expects of us without using qualified lay people?” No archbishop believed that, according to Tobin.

Bishop Deeley added that, “In every single diocese of the United States you have a review board that is made up predominately of laypeople. So we have already fulfilled that commitment.”

The system adopted by the bishops is not a perfect system — no system is — but it represents huge progress over the past, when episcopal misconduct was either ignored or covered up. In the past, only Rome was involved in the investigation of bishops, and the process was surrounded by secrecy.

The key figures in the new way of doings things will be the United States’ 32 metropolitan archbishops. They will now be responsible for receiving allegations against bishops in their provinces. Also receiving the allegations will be a lay person to help the archbishop. If the allegation is against the archbishop, then the senior bishop in the province will be responsible for dealing with it.

Allegations can come to the metropolitan from any source, including a national hotline and website for reporting allegations against any bishop, which will be run by an independent company the USCCB will hire. This system must be in place by June of next year, but the bishops hope it will be up and running earlier.

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Source: Religion News Service