Facing double-barreled criticism of their handling of clergy sexual abuse and church finances, America’s Catholic bishops began their annual spring meeting Tuesday vowing to codify for the first time rules to hold themselves accountable for misconduct.
The strong possibility that the U.S. Church will vote this week to create a system of bishop oversight is historic, though critics and watchdogs remain worried about a possible weakness: In the measures under consideration, all future probes will remain in-house. Lay people can be involved, but it’s not mandatory, and the pope retains full power over whether to keep or how to punish bishops.
“This week we continue a journey that will not end until there is not one instance of abuse in our church,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in opening the meeting Tuesday morning.
The past year has seen church leaders — especially in the Northeast — enmeshed in scandals involving cardinals and bishops accused of engaging in sexual harassment and financial abuse, or looking the other way when their fellow, high-ranking peers did so. Last week, The Washington Post reported that a Baltimore archbishop investigating sexual and financial misconduct by a West Virginia bishop edited out part of the investigative report that included the archbishop himself.
Under global pressure, Pope Francis issued a sweeping new law last month requiring dioceses worldwide to create a system of some kind for bishops and other higher-ups to be investigated — a move that comes nearly 20 years after the bishops made it mandatory to remove priests who were accused of child sexual abuse.
Debate about what kind of oversight is needed and how far it should go is expected to be intense on the floor at the Marriott Waterfront in Baltimore, where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will meet from Tuesday through Thursday. The broader questions behind specific policies that will be under debate include: What do transparency and accountability really mean to this 2,000-year-old global church run out of Rome? And if theology holds that only the pope oversees bishops and cardinals, is there still room for modern-day transparency best practices?
“I think that’s a question many are asking. And one that needs to be further studied, if you will. What can be done within the parameters of canon law and the structures of the church to allow for the kind of transparency and accountability that would give people confidence in what’s being done?” said Francesco C. Cesareo, chair of the National Review Board, a body created by the bishops to monitor their work preventing clergy sex abuse of minors.
Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability, a group that tracks the church’s handling of child sex abuse cases, said he was discouraged that the proposals on the table this week leave the power in the hands of the bishops.
He noted the case of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, bishop emeritus of West Virginia, who was at the center of an internal church report made public by The Post last week. The report alleges sexual and financial misconduct by Bransfield, including excessive personal spending into the millions. McKiernan noted that Bransfield was a former treasurer of the bishops’ conference and wrote a recent version of the U.S. Church’s financial best-practices guidelines.
“He’s obviously not acting in compliance with the guidelines he himself drew up,” McKiernan said. “The big problem is these people have never behaved as they know they ought to and as they’re saying they’re supposed to. So where’s the teeth?”
James Rogers, spokesman for the bishops’ conference, said the bishops with whom he has spoken are expressing a feeling of urgency. They “want to get something done. They’re hearing from people in the pews who want to know the church is doing something about [the lack of bishop accountability]. And bishops want to be responsive. On the one hand, they realize we aren’t going to solve everything this week, but we have to have a good start building upon the foundation of child protection already in place.”
A new poll released Tuesday found that almost all Americans — Catholics and non-Catholics — are aware of reports related to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church but are split on whether the problem is ongoing and on whether it’s more common among Catholic leaders.
The Pew Research Center study finds that 48 percent of Americans believe sex abuse is more common among Catholic clerics than among other religious leaders, while 47 percent say it’s equally common among leaders of all faiths.
Catholic Americans are less likely to see sexual misconduct as particularly tied to their denomination, the country’s largest. According to the Pew survey, conducted in the spring, 33 percent say abuse is more common among Catholic priests and bishops, while a majority — 61 percent — believe that abuse is equally common among all religious leaders.
The reports of misconduct are spurring debates and decisions inside and outside Catholic sites of worship across the nation. Nearly half (46 percent) of Catholics say they have discussed the subject with family members, friends or acquaintances, while roughly a quarter of Catholics say they began attending Mass less frequently as a result of the accounts. A similar percentage — 26 percent — of Catholics say they reduced their parish donations in response to the reports of misconduct.
Still, American Catholics retain relatively positive views of their religious leaders’ response to the scandals. More than half — 55 percent — of Catholics believe that Francis has done an “excellent” or “good” job responding to reports of abuse, and 49 percent say the same of their own bishop. Thirty-six percent, however, believe that U.S. bishops as a whole have done an “excellent” or “good” job handling the allegations.
Opinions varied according to level of engagement with the church. U.S. Catholics who attend Mass weekly were less likely to reduce their attendance or donations as a result of the reported misconduct and were more likely to hold favorable views of religious leaders.
There is a tentative agenda for the week, but bishops Tuesday morning can propose adding — or deleting — things from the schedule.
The U.S. bishops nearly voted in the fall on a plan for self-oversight but the Vatican told them to hold off until a February global meeting could be held, and the pope issued new rules in May calling for all countries by June 2020 to have some system in place. When bishops are accused of misconduct, the pope’s rules call for them to be investigated by the “metropolitan” — the archbishop of the nearest large diocese. The rules allow for, but don’t mandate, involvement of lay people.
Francis said it violated church teaching for anyone but the pope to discipline or oversee a bishop.
“There is no role for the laity to play in terms of disciplining a bishop. They can only be in the probe and make recommendations as to penal consequences,” Cesareo said. “But in the end, it’s in the pope’s hands.”
But there’s a lot more in the mix than just decisions about discipline. For example, can laypeople lead investigations in partnership with the metropolitan and make decisions such as releasing results of the investigation to the public?
U.S. Catholics have only two examples, total, of bishop investigations — both in the past year, under Francis. The Archdiocese of New York investigated sexual abuse allegations against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whom Francis defrocked this year. Baltimore Archbishop William Lori investigated Bransfield in an investigation that began in the fall and whose work was done by a small group of laypeople.
Post reporting last week revealed that Lori, while overseeing the Bransfield investigation, asked that his name — and those of other top clerics — be removed from the investigative report, after lay investigators found Bransfield had given hundreds of thousands in cash gifts to clerics, including $10,500 to Lori. Lori’s was among the names removed.
Under Vatican rules, church officials who get a complaint of misconduct about a bishop must meet all civil reporting requirements, such as telling police. Those vary widely depending on the country.
U.S. bishops will consider this week how to structure the independent system that will receive the complaint. They may create a single, national 800-number run by a private vendor, or they may have metropolitan bishops around the country each run one.
They also will consider allowing the conference to ban retired bishops or cardinals from national meetings if they have misconduct findings against them.
The meeting’s centerpiece is on creating a sex abuse reporting and investigative process, but the Bransfield scandal that erupted just days ago is expected to push financial accountability into the conversation mix.
The Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference, the industry group for diocesan finance officials, has asked bishops to also create systems for financial misconduct, said Pat Markey, executive director of the fiscal group.
“Understanding that safeguarding children is of the highest importance, I’m hopeful at one point they’ll take up other kinds of abuse. The only way you can restore trust is by looking at that aspect. I think the bishops who cover up, there’s a financial component,” Markey said Monday.
Bishops aren’t likely to spend a lot of time looking at the core data around abuse complaints. Catholic leaders frequently claim that the days of widespread sexual abuse in the church are in the distant past, and that even new allegations made today relate to decades-old secrets, not current priests’ behavior.
In many cases, that is correct. The latest analysis of abuse reports, commissioned by the U.S. bishops and published this year, says that 1,385 survivors and others informed dioceses of previously undisclosed abuse of minors in 2018. The incidents they reported were largely in the past, some from the 1940s.
The number of credible allegations made in 2018 were “significantly higher than in 2017,” according to a report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a church-run research group. The increase was largely the result of numbers from four dioceses, CARA reported. Those are in New York, where survivors were spurred to come forward by a new offer of compensation.
CARA also published results in the spring from its first study of all U.S. bishops, done in 2016. It offers a snapshot of the men at the helm of the church.
According to CARA’s spring newsletter, which excerpted the study, there are 430 active and retired bishops in the country. When asked their general theological leanings, 42 percent said traditional, 41 percent said moderate and 17 percent said progressive.
The average bishop is age 65, non-Hispanic white and born in the United States. Forty-seven percent of the bishops, CARA’s survey found, watch Fox News, while 35 percent watch CNN. Ninety-five percent agree “strongly” or “somewhat” that “secular U.S. culture is hostile to the values of Catholicism,” CARA found.
“Seven percent explicitly mentioned the clergy sexual abuse crisis as one of the greatest challenges the church faces,” the CARA newsletter said.
Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who represents many clergy abuse survivors and was featured in the movie “Spotlight,” on Tuesday told The Post that the bishops should advocate for one thing in any case of alleged abuse, regardless of what civil laws require: Call the police.
“It would be folly to think that the culture of sexual abuse and coverup within the Catholic Church is going to change because of written rules made by the Catholic bishops who thrive in that culture and practice self-acclaim,” he said. “History is getting tired of the deception and criminality within the Catholic Church.”
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