Bishops aim to curb abuse, and cover-ups

The Catholic Church is fighting fires on many fronts. Attorneys general in at least a dozen states are investigating abuse and cover-up allegations against the church, Mass attendance is declining, and a string of bishop scandals has deepened mistrust of its leadership.

Bishops aim to curb abuse, and cover-ups

The United States’ Roman Catholic bishops voted Thursday to enact a new oversight system intended to hold them accountable for abuse and cover-ups, a move meant to restore faith in a church whose epidemic of misconduct has driven away parishioners and attracted the attention of state and federal law enforcement.

The move was endorsed at a high-stakes gathering in Baltimore of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It came one month after Pope Francis issued a sweeping edict that ordered church officials around the world to report cases of sexual abuse — and attempted cover-ups — to their superiors. The decree gave bishops one year to establish new procedures.

The Catholic Church is fighting fires on many fronts. Attorneys general in at least a dozen states are investigating abuse and cover-up allegations against the church, Mass attendance is declining, and a string of bishop scandals has deepened mistrust of its leadership.

The highest-profile prelate to be implicated was former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, who was expelled from the priesthood in February after the church found him guilty of abusing children and adult seminarians.

The president of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, has himself been accused of mishandling abuse claims, including a case that led federal agents to raid his office in 2018.

The system adopted this week includes a hotline for reporting allegations against bishops and procedures that detail how claims should be investigated by senior bishops called metropolitans.

Abuse survivors and reform advocates called the move a step in the right direction, but they also expressed concern over what they said were its shortcomings.

Chief among them: The system does not order church officials to report allegations to law enforcement unless there is a claim of child sex abuse or unless local law requires them to alert the police. Absent those conditions, they can opt to conduct an internal investigation.

But Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, told reporters Thursday that he thought bishops were unlikely to take that route.

He said that the pope had laid out a role for the police that “wouldn’t be as specific as we would like it in the United States,” but that he hoped local arrangements between dioceses and police departments would encourage them to work together.

“I am confident that the idea of doing this in-house is long gone,” he said.

Victims’ advocates also expressed worries that the system does not require lay people, who play an advisory role in inquiries into rank-and-file priests, to be involved in investigating bishops.

That concern was aired in a speech to the bishops Tuesday by Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, a lay group that advises the church on abuse investigations.

He said not requiring lay involvement “means bishops policing bishops.”

“Not involving laity with competence and expertise in leading the review process would signal a continuation of a culture of self-preservation that would suggest complicity,” Cesareo said.

Some bishops at the conference lobbied for the system to include mandatory lay participation, but they were unsuccessful. On Tuesday, a panel of bishops said the text of the pope’s decree — which did not mandate lay involvement — had tied their hands.

“We could not go beyond what the Holy Father has given,” said Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland, Maine, at a news conference.

Tobin said Thursday that lay people would inevitably be involved in investigating bishops, even if the legislation enacting the system did not require it.

“The possibility of doing that without qualified lay people is next to impossible,” he said. “It is impossible, and it would be highly irresponsible.”

When the abuse crisis engulfed the church in 2002, U.S. bishops met in Dallas to draft a road map for investigating allegations and punishing abusers.

That charter required review boards made up of lay people to play an advisory role in investigations into rank-and-file priests, said Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer and former chairman of the National Review Board. But it did not apply to the bishops.

Church officials frequently point to the charter as a watershed moment that led to a decrease in the number of new child abuse cases.

“Now we have a new issue and new problem with the conduct of some bishops, and we are addressing that with the tools that were successful in 2002,” Deeley said Thursday. “It would be false to say that we didn’t get it and we didn’t do it.”

Cafardi said the new system was “certainly a step forward.” But he said he was “slightly disappointed” that it did not repeat the 2002 charter’s insistence on lay involvement.

“The system really perpetuates clericalism, which is something Pope Francis has criticized in other situations — the idea that priests exist on a different level than lay people and bishops exist on a different level than priests, and that’s by divine origin and you can’t even talk about changing it,” Cafardi said.

Advocates for abuse survivors said it was not clear that the new system would work in practice.

“The situation right now is that the review board in each diocese reports to and advises the bishop, so what do you do in a situation where the person you report to is the person accused?” said Terry McKiernan, president of

He pointed to accusations in an Associated Press report last week that DiNardo had mishandled sexual and financial misconduct allegations against his deputy, Monsignor Frank Rossi.

The church has pushed back against criticism of DiNardo but said it would investigate claims in the report for violations of church law.

“The bishops, they are basically executive, legislative and judicial power in their dioceses,” McKiernan said. “Now they are in the uncomfortable role of trying to construct a system that somehow has checks and balances.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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