U.S. bishops have learned that lesson in recent weeks, even as responsibility for solving the problem has shifted apparently by the pope’s design, to Rome.
After several confusing and turbulent weeks in the Church, it is worth asking where reform efforts stand, and where they will be going.
Baltimore, thwarted plans, and the “metropolitan model”
It is now well-known that this month’s meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference was unlike any USCCB meeting that had come before it. The bishops arrived in Baltimore Nov. 12 prepared to pray together, and then to vote on facets of a plan they believed would address the allegations of episcopal sexual misconduct and administrative malfeasance that have plagued the Church in recent months.
They planned to pass a code of conduct for bishops, create a whistleblower hotline, and establish an independent lay-led team of experts charged with investigating allegations made against bishops.
On Monday morning, as the meeting opened, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the conference president, announced that their plans had been iced-- the Vatican had determined they should wait to vote until after a January retreat for U.S. bishops, and a February meeting involving the heads of bishops’ conferences from around the world.
DiNardo himself seemed stunned. Bishops and observers were confused. Many bishops felt they had to return to their dioceses with evidence that some action had been taken to address diminishing lay confidence in their ability to address the ongoing crisis.
Nevertheless, the meeting continued. By the end, at least one official action had been taken: DiNardo announced the formation of a task force, consisting of several former USCCB presidents, to assist him in assessing open questions and possible plans that arose from the meeting, in preparation for the February gathering at the Vatican.
While several open questions are part of its mandate, the main job of the task force seems to be developing two competing proposals for the investigation of bishops.
The initial plan for investigating bishops, introduced by conference leadership before the November meeting, called for a lay-led commission which could investigate allegations made against bishops who support the funding of the commission and choose to allow themselves to be investigated.
Proponents of this plan say it has the benefit of inscrutability; that leadership by independent lay experts will ensure fair and thorough evaluations of complaints, and assist the Holy See by providing accurate and impartial information. Opponents at the Baltimore meeting raised a variety of objections: that funding the commission will be expensive, that the commission might not have a sufficient number of allegations to justify staffing it, that the plan puts laity into a position of “authority” over bishops, or, conversely, that the plan does not give sufficient authority to investigators because participation is not compulsory.
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After voting on that proposal was suspended, a new plan surfaced during the bishops’ meeting, introduced by Cupich. That plan would have metropolitans, or archbishops, along with their archdiocesan review boards, investigate allegations against bishops. If archbishops were accused, the senior diocesan bishop in the ecclesiastical province would investigate the plan, with assistance from his review board.
The proponents of the “metropolitan model” plan say that it appropriately involves laity, is more consistent with Catholic ecclesiology, and is notably less expensive than the alternative proposal. At least one bishop at the recent meeting said it seems more fitting for bishops to be judged by bishops. Critics of the approach say that while the plan might work in theory, it is too late for the Church to impose a policy in which bishops are responsible for overseeing investigations into other bishops; that trust has eroded in the institution and is more likely to be restored by outside, independent lay involvement. Other critics say that the plan imposes responsibility on the metropolitan he may not be prepared to fulfill, and that could lead, potentially, to legal liabilities.
Disagreement among the bishops over these proposals is not ideological. Both Cupich and Archbishop Charles Chaput support the metropolitan model, though they often have markedly divergent theological viewpoints. Most observers say that both plans have strengths and weaknesses that should be explored before any plan is recommended or implemented. The task force will take up that exploration. Its conclusions will be submitted to DiNardo before the February meeting.
The task force’s work could prove to be for naught, if the pope, Vatican officials, or the meeting’s planning committee already know what they hope to see come from the meeting. Cupich, who was appointed by Pope Francis, said recently that the meeting will work to accomplish some “specific outcomes that reflect the mind of Pope Francis.”
It is not certain that the pope supports the metropolitan plan proposed by Cupich, and publicly floated in August by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, but the appointment of Cupich to the meeting’s planning committee seems to suggest that the pope supports at least the cardinal’s basic approach.
Still, of concern to many American Catholics at this point are not the specifics of any initiative undertaken, but rather that the Vatican does something concrete and direct, and soon, to demonstrate that sexual coercion and abuse are intolerable, as is episcopal administrative negligence.