"In a sense all bishops are priests too, and ideally the norms and charter would already be applied to bishops, though this seems to need the approval of Rome. I think American Catholics as a group tend to be impatient with technicalities like this, they want to see progress and the USCCB's plan is a solid beginning."
Fr. Giovanni Capucci, a priest of the Archdiocese of Denver who teaches canon law at St. John Vianney Seminary, told CNA that the difficulty lay in the U.S. bishops' conference having to deal with issues it was never intended to handle.
"The challenge facing the USCCB, or any bishops conference, is that they were not created to be legislative bodies. The areas in which they can make binding rules for all the bishops of a country is very narrowly limited and prescribed explicitly by the Holy See," Capucci told CNA.
"Trying to arrive at new norms or processes, even in response to grave scandals, is simply not what they were created to do."
He explained that while many Catholics would like to see swift, decisive action from the American bishops, as an institution, the USCCB is geared more towards being a communal forum than a deliberative body.
"From that perspective, the proposals are a commendable effort and a necessary one. But they probably also reflect the farthest they can go within the limits of their authority," Capucci said.
Both Capucci and Mechmann agreed that further reforms were likely, noting that the statement of the Administrative Committee underscored that the announced measures were only a first step in a continuing process.
Capucci told CNA that "it is up to the Holy See to determine if the USCCB will be given more authority to act, and they seem to have been clear that they consider this a first step. Time will tell what else may be achieved."
Ed Mechmann pointed out that, in the meantime, more could be done by U.S. dioceses themselves.
"Currently, the charter and norms are working, but the outcomes and applications are not uniform across all dioceses. Even the terms 'sexual misconduct' or 'abuse' don't necessarily mean the same thing in all dioceses," he said.
"What's misconduct in New York needs to be misconduct across the river in Newark. I think working on a better process of incremental and ongoing reform will yield better results, near and long term, than becoming locked into a cycle of responding to major crises."
(Story continues below)
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Some Catholics, including members of the pope's own Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, have advanced the idea of regional or national tribunals to handle sexual abuse cases. The impetus for this is the known backlog of cases facing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which has not - as yet - been given the resources and manpower required to process its caseload effectively.
More than that, Mechmann said, giving local authorities the power to try local abuse cases would demonstrate accountability.
"We want to get to a place where American problems are being handled locally, and the bishops here need to ask for and receive the authority to deal with our own issues," Mechmann said.
Mechmann also told CNA that "people don't want to hear that our issues are being palmed off on a handful of hard-working but clearly over-stretched priests in Rome. That looks like shifting responsibility for our own messes, and it extends the time it takes to deal with these matters. Justice delayed is justice denied."
Fr. Capucci sounded a note of caution about the concept of regional or national tribunal, saying that the idea is "not entirely novel, and it's not clear if this is necessarily the best way forward. The American experience of special norms for marriage tribunals, for example, was not a universally positive experience," he told CNA.
"The important thing is that cases of abuse are dealt with, dealt with swiftly, and handled by qualified staff who can deliver an outcome people can have faith in - always keeping the needs of victims at the front of their work" Fr. Capucci said.