One day after the Vatican halted its plans to vote on sex abuse accountability measures, U.S. bishops Tuesday began their first open debate since the crisis began this summer about what they can and should do to better police themselves.
BALTIMORE – The Vatican may have thrown into disarray American bishops’ plans to vote this week on proposals to address the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis. But on Tuesday it became clear that the bishops are far from united in their views about what actions to take, as well as their own culpability and the perceived role of homosexuality in the unfolding scandal.
In their first of two days of debate about the abuse proposals on Tuesday, many bishops advocated vigorously for empowering lay people to investigate and hold bishops to a new written standard of conduct — while others questioned the pitfalls of such investigations and some expressed skepticism about the necessity of holding the church’s leaders more accountable at all.
Bishop Robert Evans of Providence came to the microphone to defend the actions of bishops in past decades who returned abusive priests to ministry, acting on the advice of psychologists at the time. “Many bishops, I would say almost everyone, did the best they could according to the best lights of the time.”
His statement, which was met with significant applause, contrasted starkly with remarks made at the conference by the chairman of the National Review Board, a lay-led body the bishops set up in 2002 to monitor how well the U.S. church is doing on the abuse issue.
Francesco Cesareo strongly objected to every suggestion that the bishops can do anything less than take massive action. More than 130 current bishops, “have been accused during their careers of failing to respond to sexual misconduct in their dioceses,” Cesaro said referencing investigations by the Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Others have been accused of committing abuse. Few have faced real consequences. This must change.”
A major proposal of the bishops, funded with $500,000 from the dioceses, would create a commission to investigate misconduct by bishops– including three clergy and six non-clergy members, at least one of whom would be a religious sister and at least one of whom would be an abuse victim. Participation by the bishops in investigations would be voluntary, and the commission could only access evidence held by a bishop or his diocese if the bishop consents to it, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit told the conference.
Some bishops raised concerns about the plan, which they had been scheduled to vote on this week. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say some of us have our share of enemies out there, that an allegation could be brought forward that is motivated by something other than the truth,” Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Ore.
Another proposal that had been scheduled for a vote is a new code of conduct for the bishops, which Bishop Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Illinois, bristled at. He said he already publicly committed to celibacy when he was ordained a deacon, a priest and then a bishop. “I have to say I’m a little chagrined being asked to sign some document at this point that says I will be accountable to certain standards,” Conlon said.
Others fretted about the proposal for telephone and on-line hotlines for reporting bishop misconduct, which the bishops have begun searching for a third-party vendor to operate. The company that takes the calls can report the complaints to law enforcement directly. If a lay commission is set up, the hotline could also funnel the complaints to that commission.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco stood up to ask how the hotline will handle anonymous complaints.
“Sooner or later they need to disclose their identity. An anonymous complaint is not going to go anywhere, I think,” Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, the vice president of the U.S. bishops, responded.
Even if the caller is named, Bishop Donald Trautman, a retired leader of Erie, Pennsylvania, said he still opposes the hotline. “I think this proposal is very dangerous and unjust,” he said. He said he does not want accusations that have not been “proven” or “substantiated” reported to the apostolic nuncio, the Vatican’s ambassador in Washington.
Trautman, whose former diocese was one of the six investigated in the Pennsylvania grand jury report that drew new attention to sexual abuse in the church, established himself at the meeting as one of the loudest voices against further accountability measures of several sorts. Earlier in the day, after some praised state prosecutors and secular journalists who expose crimes committed by priests, Trautman went to the microphone to castigate both.
“We should not be so naive as to accept every government report, every attorney general report as completely accurate or honest,” he said. Then he said he wouldn’t trust either the Philadelphia Inquirer or the Boston Globe — who recently published a joint investigation into bishops’ record on covering up sexual abuse — to publish accurate information. Some of the bishops applauded.
Questions about the bishops’ ability to hold one another accountable were highlighted by the presence at the conference of several retired bishops who are accused of failing to address abuse in their dioceses.
The Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops gave the American bishops an unexpected directive just as their meeting began on Monday, telling them not to take a formal vote on any of their sexual abuse proposals. The exact words used by the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops in telling the Americans not to vote weren’t known Tuesday, but U.S. bishops’ conference president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo said the halt was aimed at keeping unity in the global church on procedures.
John Allen Jr., editor of the Catholic site Crux, said there is a divide between the Vatican and the U.S. bishops about authority. Under church law, the only superior of a bishop is the pope, and anything otherwise “that would look like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops trying to assert authority over another bishop would be a problem,” Allen said. “Anything that looks like a lay board, or a lay entity that would assert authority over bishops would also be a problem.”
Allen said he thinks the tensions over power are greater between the U.S. and Rome than among the American bishops.
Outside advisory boards offered strong words for the bishops as they contemplated their plans.
“It remains clear that some bishops have escaped the consequences of their acts of omission regarding abuse and that little is being done to address this injustice,” Cesareo of the National Review Board said. He called for an investigation into allegations by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal nuncio to the United States, that Pope Francis and others in the Vatican long knew of the allegations against McCarrick and declined to act.
Cesareo criticized the bishops for hiding the extent of the abuse until civil authorities and journalists intervened. “How many souls have been lost because of this crisis?” he said. “Today the faithful and the clergy do not trust many of you. They are angry and frustrated, no longer satisfied with words and even with prayer. They seek action that signals a cultural change from the leadership of the church.”
The board presented the bishops with a list of recommendations, including one urging every diocese to review its archives, dating back to at least 1950, and to make the record of abuse found in those archives public. Cesareo praised bishops who have already released lists of names of accused priests or have agreed to cooperate with criminal and civil investigations.
Retired Army Col. Anita Raines, of the Conference’s National Advisory Council, said the council wants a code of conduct for bishops and a public recommitment to chastity and holiness. It also wants a third-party system to receive reports of abuse and auditing of U.S. seminaries “to investigate possible patterns of abuse of power and predatory homosexual behavior,” she said. The council is a mix of laypeople and clergy who advise the bishops’ conference.
The explosive topic of homosexuality arose late Tuesday, with some bishops taking the microphone on the issue.
Bishop Joseph Strickland, of Tyler, Texas, said the McCarrick scandal should lead the bishops to consider the question of gay clergy. “It’s part of our deposit of faith that we believe homosexual activity is immoral,” he said. “Do we believe the doctrine of the Church or not?”