Ethics & Public Policy Center

Finish the Job

Published in The Catholic Thing on June 6, 2019


Last November’s general assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was notable for the genuine sense of urgency among the bishops gathered in Baltimore. They understood that their credibility was at stake, and that their exasperated flock was pleading for concrete action. Rome threw a wet blanket on their plan, but the bishops’ frustration at Rome’s delay only seemed to add to their feeling of urgency.

Now, as our bishops prepare to meet again Baltimore next week, they will face yet another test. But this time, the challenge will not be the frustration of delay; it will be the temptation to rest on the significant progress toward accountability for bishops that has been made since last autumn. Pope Francis has given the bishops a great opportunity; they ought to make the most of it by pushing forward with as much determination as ever.

As I wrote two weeks ago, Pope Francis has put in place new rules for handling allegations of sexual abuse – and of the mishandling of abuse cases – against bishops. While these new rules, laid out in the motu proprio, Vos estis lux mundi, represent a massive improvement for most of the global Church, they stop short of mandating the kind of lay involvement in the review of allegations against bishops that many in the United States have come to expect, especially in the wake of the McCarrick scandal.

While the new norms do not mandate lay involvement, they do explicitly invite the possibility of lay assistance in the investigation of allegations against bishops. Bishops, through the episcopal conference or otherwise, are recommended to “establish lists of qualified persons” from which an investigating bishop could select those experts best suited to the requirements of the case before him while “taking into account the cooperation that can be offered by the lay faithful.”

Every diocese in the United States already has a “list of qualified persons” in the form of diocesan review boards. These independent review boards are already mandatory under Church law and must be composed of a majority of lay members. Boards have proven effective in helping bishops handle allegations against priests, and, more recently, in handling allegations against bishops, at least on an ad hoc basis.

The archdiocesan review board in New York helped Cardinal Dolan conduct the investigation last year that ultimately led to the defrocking of Theodore McCarrick. The archdiocesan review board in Los Angeles assisted Archbishop Gomez in conducting the investigation into allegations against Bishop Salazar, who was removed late last year as auxiliary in L.A.

And Rome granted authority to Archbishop Lori of Baltimore to investigate allegations of sexual harassment and financial impropriety by Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, formerly of Wheeling-Charleston. That investigation was conducted with the assistance of the Independent Review Board for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The results of the investigation were passed on to Rome, and Archbishop Lori placed restrictions – to the extent he had the authority to do so – on Bransfield’s ministry, both in the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

In other words, the model for reporting and investigating episcopal malfeasance laid out by Pope Francis in Vos estis has already been used to investigate and remove several bishops here in the United States. In each case, existing diocesan review boards, with their majority-lay membership, were enlisted to help investigate and review allegations.

Thanks to Pope Francis, we have new universal norms laying out the “metropolitan model” for handling allegations against bishops. We have majority-lay independent review boards in every U.S. diocese. And we have a strong precedent of Rome approving of the way the American bishops have employed the latter in the execution of the former. So far so good.

It is not clear, however, that the USCCB can mandate the use of existing review boards in the implementation of the Vatican’s new norms. It is possible that, just as they did for handling allegations against priests, the U.S. bishops could make particular laws mandating the use of existing review boards for investigating allegations against bishops. (The bishops will likely explore this possibility at next week’s annual mid-year meeting.) Such mandatory lay involvement in the handling of allegations against bishops is preferred, but that is a requirement Rome would have to approve.

Would Rome balk at mandatory lay review? Maybe. But whether canon law mandates lay involvement or not, any investigating bishop should feel pastorally and morally obliged to make full use of lay expertise, especially when he has an existing review board ready to hand. In the current environment, any bishop who goes out of his way to sidestep lay involvement in the investigation of a fellow bishop must know that he is making himself an ecclesiastical pariah. Never underestimate the power of ecclesiastical – and especially Episcopal – peer pressure.

Next week in Baltimore, the bishops have a great opportunity to get things right. Most have been waiting since November for a chance to take collective action. Now is their chance. The pieces are all in place. Can they finish the job?

© 2019 The Catholic Thing.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

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