US bishops divided on how to deal with sex abuse accusations

CNS photo / Bob Roller.
CNS photo / Bob Roller.

.- Wednesday afternoon, the bishops of the United States resumed their discussions of the proposals for policies which were intended to be the centerpiece of their response to the recent sexual abuse scandals.

In an unexpected turn of events, discussion shifted from the proposed creation of an independent commission tasked with examining allegations against bishops to debate of an alternative proposal for a system based around metropolitan provinces and archbishops.

A decision by the Congregation for Bishops, issued shortly before the USCCB fall general assembly opened, prevented the bishops from taking a determinative vote on the measures. Many members called for the documents and policies to be debated and voted on in a symbolic way, so that the a clear sense of the bishops’ priorities could be expressed.

Bishops submitted amendments for discussion on three measures: a new set of Standards of Episcopal Conduct, the creation of an independent lay commission to handle accusations against bishops, and a policy for dealing with bishops who had either resigned or been removed from office following accusations of misconduct.

The session opened with a brief discussion of a proposed amendment to the Standards of Episcopal Conduct proposed by Bishop Steven Beigler of Cheyenne.

Beigler had suggested the inclusion of additional text in the introductory section of the Standards. His amendment addressed the problems of clericalism, the actions of some bishops to shield the institutional Church at the expense of victims and survivors of abuse. It also contained a brief reflection on the nature of a bishop’s office, and what it means to be a shepherd.

Presenting his amendment, which had been rejected by the conference’s Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations, Beigler said that as a group the American bishops had “not acted as guardians of the least,” had shown “no tenderness in our hearts” for the cries of victims.

Beigler said the purpose of his amendment was to give a statement of the values which should underpin the standards of conduct.

Responding to him, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, who chairs the Committee on Clergy, said that his text had been “considered very seriously,” and the decision not to accept it did not mean they disagreed with the values Beigler expressed.

Rather, Tobin said, the concern was that the “richness of the reflection could distract from the other content in the draft.” Speaking for himself, the cardinal said that he would be taking Beigler’s text home with him for continued reflection.

Turning to the proposal for an independent special commission to investigate allegations of misconduct against bishops, the conference spent as much time debating a two-page counter proposal, submitted by Cardinal Blase Cupich, as it did the commission.

Cardinal Cupich’s plan proposes that when an accusation against a bishop is made, it be reported to the local metropolitan archbishop and that the allegation be considered by the lay-led diocesan review board of the archdiocese. After receiving the recommendation of his own review board, the metropolitan archbishop would then forward the case to Rome, together with his own recommendation.

In the event that the accusation was made against the metropolitan archbishop, the senior suffragan bishop of the province would handle the allegation in his diocese.

Archbishop Allen Vigneron spoke on behalf of the USCCB Executive Committee, which was responsible for the plan for a special commission.

Acknowledging that, following the instruction of the Holy See, there was no scope to reach a final consensus on what system would be best, Cardinal Cupich’s proposal, along with other amendments to the plan for the independent commission, had been included together and would be given to the special “task force” formed of three past USCCB presidents, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Archbishop Wilton Gregory.

This task force will consider the relative merits of the two now-rival proposals, and offer a more detailed consideration when next the bishops meet, either in March or June 2019.

While no firm action on either proposal is possible before the conclusion of the February meeting of the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences called by Pope Francis, the bishops did have some preliminary exchanges about what they saw as the relative merits of the special commission versus Cardinal Cupich’s detailed alternative.

Those in favor of the new plan observed that it might better reflect existing Church structures and might more easily fit within existing canon law.

Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento said that he could see the merits of the Cupich plan, but was concerned that, in the light of recent scandals, it could not be proposed “with any credibility.”

The entire purpose of the independent commission was, he said, to make a “strong statement” of independence and transparency. Soto even suggested that the plan for a special commission might be improved by removing all clerical or episcopal membership or involvement.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield also expressed “a couple of concerns” about the metropolitan model.

Paprocki noted that such a model appeared to lack the independence which was the driving force behind the proposal for an independent commission.

“I would remind everyone that Archbishop McCarrick was a metropolitan,” Paprocki said. He pointed out that seminarians allegedly abused by McCarrick felt that they could not come forward with a complaint against their own archbishop.

“Would they have trusted this process if it meant going to the senior suffragan bishop instead?” Paprocki asked.

He also noted that asking the senior suffragan bishop to offer an opinion for or against allegations against their metropolitan “raises questions” about the independence of the plan.

“I thought what we were trying to do here was to put in place a system to fix what was not working. The whole point of the special commission was that it is not part of any diocese or province,” Paprocki said.

Bishops Cozzens, an auxiliary of St. Paul-Minneapolis, suggested that some version of the metropolitan model could perhaps be implemented right away, with diocesan bishops simply announcing that any complaints against them could be sent to their metropolitan archbishop.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo brought the day’s proceedings to a close, saying that the bishops had arrived in Baltimore following the summer’s scandals with three goals: “to do what we could to get to the bottom of the Archbishop McCarrick situation; to make reporting of abuse and misconduct by bishops easier; and, to develop a means of holding ourselves accountable that was genuinely independent, duly authorized, and had substantial lay involvement.”

DiNardo said that he considered the bishops “on course” with all three priorities, and that he looked forward to the February meeting in Rome, with expectations that it would make the U.S. bishops’ “local efforts more global.”

While many of the bishops remain frustrated at their own inability to leave Baltimore with even a common expression of intent, DiNardo said that although he had begun the session on Monday with disappointment, “I end the meeting with hope, first of all grounded in Christ.”

Tags: US Bishops, Catholic News, Accountability, Sex abuse, USCCB Fall General Assembly 2018