Having seen the criticism heaped on some bishops for their handling of particular cases, it might be forgivable if lurking under the calls for external accountability was a desire for the added security of a lay person – any lay person – to share the responsibility for tough decisions.
But such a mentality, even unspoken, would suggest the bishops remain concerned primarily with who should evaluate accusations against them, and not how they should be evaluated.
Towards the end of the session, a handful of questions emerged from the floor on the need to distinguish between sexual abuse of minors and other instances of sexual misconduct. Both are grave, some bishops noted, but they require different handling by people with different skillsets.
But what these differences are and how they should be applied to the messy reality of actual cases remains relatively undiscussed, much less answered so far.
Given the difficulty of parsing issues like consent in cases of clerical sexual contact, it is perhaps understandable that there is relatively little appetite to discuss such matters. But as bishops are learning through hard experience, if they do not move to set the criteria for assessing allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct – especially concerning adults – that criteria can be set for them after the fact when individual cases come to light and their judgement is assessed by an already cynical public. Moving to offer a clear consensus definition of sexual abuse vs sexual misconduct, and how to distinguish the two, could prove a more impactful contribution to transparency and accountability than reserving one or other role to a lay person.
Over the next few days in Baltimore, the bishops have a limited window to discuss the best path forward in recovering their own credibility. As they do so, they need to beware mistaking the means of lay involvement for an end in itself.
The true ends of justice and accountability can be served by a greater role for lay men and women, and by a real commitment to transparency. But it remains unclear how much real progress towards justice there can be until there is a full discussion and understanding of what justice looks like in different cases. Without that, talk of lay involvement may be little more than a definite means to an uncertain end.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer and worked as Catholic News Agency's Washington DC editor until December 2020.