On the morning of the first day of the USCCB's General Assembly in Baltimore, discussion began on three proposals to improve episcopal accountability.
As the discussion developed June 11, much of the focus concerned the role of lay people in the process of handling complaints against bishops, and the extent to which the conference could make binding provisions to that end.
The assembly considered directives to implement the pope's recent motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi, a formal affirmation of their moral commitments as bishops, and a set of protocols which can be applied by serving diocesan bishops to retired or emeritus bishops.
All three proposals were put to the floor for questions and clarifications, with the possibility to propose amendments in writing ahead of final votes in the coming days.
Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland presented the directives for implementing Vos estis on behalf of the conference's Canonical Affairs and Church Governance Committee.
The directives were, he stressed, intended to only to be read "in constant reference to Vos estis," the universal law of the Church. Deeley underscored to the bishops several times that it was not within the conference's authority to contradict the pope's provisions, but to act within them.
Many of the "new" provisions of the pope's law, Deeley said, would be familiar to American bishops and reflected "long standing practices already observed in the United States."
Vos estis carved out specific scope for bishops' conferences to act in three key areas, Deeley said. These include the creation of a "public, stable, and easily accessible" mechanisms for making allegations of abuse, coming up with lists of qualified persons - including laity – who can assist in handling allegations, and establishing a fund to cover the cost of investigations.
As bishops asked questions from the floor, many focused on the involvement of laity in the investigation and assessment of an allegation against a bishop.
Cardinal Cupich of Chicago noted that Vos estis allowed for the designation of an ecclesiastical office for receiving complaints. The cardinal suggested that while such roles existed in many places, the could be made a standard practice and specifically assigned to a lay person.
This, he noted, offered the possibility of "institutionalizing lay involvement" at the first stage of the process of handling a complaint against a bishop. Cupich said that putting lay people in central role in the process was "an important message to send right from the beginning."
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego called for changes to the proposed directives which would make other options for lay involvement mandatory.
Vos estis allows for the use of outside experts by a metropolitan archbishop to investigate and assess an allegation against a bishop. At the conclusion of the investigation, McElroy noted, the metropolitan can send the files of the investigation along with his own conclusions. McElroy then proposed that the directives for US bishops be amended to require that every metropolitan use a lay investigator and be required to send their full findings to Rome, together with the metropolitan's own conclusion. This would, he said, ensure that Rome always received "at least one" lay person's conclusions on the complaint.
Deeley explained to the conference that these and other suggestions for involving laity at the heart of any investigation were certainly viable, but that it was not within the scope of the conference's power to limit the latitude given to metropolitans in the universal law.
Individual metropolitans were given considerable latitude to choose how best to incorporate independent experts in a given case, Deeley said, and the provisions of the pope's law could not be "precluded" by the conference.
There were, he said "a number of possibilities" left open by Vos estis, and "it is not our wish to limit the possibilities a metropolitan has."
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark presented the document entitled "Acknowledging Our Episcopal Commitments," an earlier version of which had been discussed during the USCCB meeting in November, when it had been considered as a statement of standards of episcopal conduct.
The purpose of the document, Tobin said, was for the bishops to make a personal moral commitment to apply the standards of the Dallas Charter and the USCCB essential norms to themselves, as they already were bindingly applied to priests and deacons.
As he took questions from the floor, Tobin acknowledged that the commitment to apply the norms was "moral" rather than "legal." Some parts of the Charter and Norms would be difficult for bishops to apply to themselves; for example, in issuing letters of suitability required for priests, a bishop could not meaningfully issue a letter attesting to his own suitability.
Tobin explained that legally binding norms on bishops were covered by Vos estis in a way "flexible enough to be written for the whole world" but that it was for the US bishops to "fashion it and implement it the best way we can for the national Church in the United States"
Drawing a distinction between the guidelines for implementing Vos estis and the acknowledgment of episcopal commitments, Tobin said that "what we tried to avoid was mixing genres between the moral and the aesthetical, and the legal."
While the acknowledgement's language could appear imprecise in places, Tobin said, it was intended to reflect the "moral responsibility" of bishops, with the legal obligations treated separately.
While the floor was open for questions and clarifications on the various documents, it was clear that a number of points remained unresolved in the minds of the bishops.
Many raised the distinction, or lack of distinction, in the various documents, between the sexual abuse of minors and forms of sexual misconduct among adults.
While there appeared to be broad acceptance that the two problems were separate, and that different allegations required different kinds of expertise to evaluate, there was no clear consensus on how best to reflect that in legally and morally binding language.
Deeley was also charged with presenting the draft protocols for placing restrictions on retired or removed bishops.
While paying tribute to the valuable service that emeritus bishops give to their local Churches, Deeley acknowledged that there was a need to clarify what measures a bishop could take to restrict his predecessor in the face of a departure necessitated by scandal.
Deeley stressed that the measures outlined in the protocols were a summary of existing provisions in canon law and did not attempt to create a new way for bishops to attempt to punish each other.
Competent authority in penal cases involving a bishop is only ever the Supreme Pontiff, Deeley said, urging reliance on the nunciature and direct intervention from Rome as needed.

The one novelty presented in the protocols, if approved, would be giving the USCCB president the power to suspend a bishop from participating in any conference meeting or work. Such a measure was widely called for last year, as more than one bishop observed during the November meeting that then-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick was, by rights, still technically an invited attendee notwithstanding the scandal and crisis he had caused.
Despite thoughtful discussion on the other two documents, Deeley received no questions from the floor on the protocols for placing non-penal restrictions on retired or removed bishops.