Last November, at the insistence of the Vatican, the USCCB postponed voting on several action items intended to address the abuse crisis and, in particular, the failure of the bishops to hold themselves or each other accountable. One of those action items was the establishment of standards of conduct and accountability for bishops. The second was the establishment of a special commission to review complaints against bishops who violate those standards of conduct.
While they did not vote on either item, the bishops did discuss them at length. Those discussions revealed a genuine desire to take concrete steps toward accountability for bishops, but they also revealed substantive disagreement within the conference about the best way to do that.
In particular, the bishops disagreed about the proposal for a special commission for handling complaints against bishops, which would have established a sort of national lay-review board, analogous to those that handle accusations against priests at the diocesan level. Even if the Vatican had not preempted a conference vote, it’s far from clear that the proposal would have passed.
There was another item on the agenda in November which received less attention at the time, but which has been back in the news recently: the establishment of an independent, third-party reporting mechanism for fielding complaints against bishops. Because the bishops did not adopt a code of conduct for themselves, and since no national review board was established to which a national third-party system might report, the proposal seemed moot after the November meeting.
But in January, Archbishop William Lori announced that he was putting in place a third-party reporting system to handle any complaints that might be lodged against bishops in his own archdiocese of Baltimore. The Archdiocese of Baltimore already contracts with an independent firm to handle reports of misconduct at the archdiocesan level – anything from financial mismanagement and fraud to sexual harassment and abuse at parishes or schools – and the same whistleblower system will simply be expanded to handle complaints against bishops.
Complaints made through the system are sent to the archdiocesan review board. In the future, if those complaints implicate a bishop in the archdiocese, the report will also be forwarded to the nuncio in Washington, DC and, if necessary, to law-enforcement officials.
Now, just this week, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston announced that his archdiocese would be putting in place a similar program for bishops’ accountability using the same third-party system. As in Baltimore, the Boston system will use an existing reporting infrastructure to handle allegations against bishops, which can then be sent to the nuncio or law enforcement.
(The system being used in both Boston and Baltimore is called EthicsPoint, developed by a company called NAVEX Global, which is used to handle whistleblower complaints for major companies around the world.)
It’s one thing for the USCCB to discuss plans for implementing mechanisms of accountability for bishops. It’s another thing for the archbishop of a major archdiocese to put them in place. It’s yet another thing for the President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to take these steps in his own archdiocese.
If Archbishop Lori deserves credit for taking this action before any of his brother bishops, Cardinal O’Malley following suit sends a strong signal to any other bishops who might still be worried about pursuing reforms that might be perceived as stepping on Roman toes. Expect more dioceses to follow suit.
The system being put in place in Baltimore and Boston, of course, isn’t a panacea. Lay-review boards don’t have the authority to conduct a full investigation of a bishop, let alone remove him. Diocesan review boards have no such power over priests, either, but rely instead on the voluntary cooperation of their diocese and bishop.
Still, it would be hard for, say, the nuncio, to ignore a complaint submitted to him against a bishop from that own bishop’s lay-review board. This is especially true because, unlike some cases where individual reports have been made to a nuncio or other Vatican official, only to vanish into the black box of the Roman bureaucracy, diocesan review boards publish annual reports.
There’s something to be said for individual dioceses taking it upon themselves to establish accountability for bishops. And there’s something to be said for trying different approaches in different dioceses to see what works and what doesn’t. I’ve written before that we can already see hints that the use of existing lay-review boards to investigate and report on bishops has been tried successfully in ad hoc fashion in places like New York and Los Angeles.
But there’s also a downside to piecemeal reforms: we could easily end up with a patchwork of accountability mechanisms that vary widely from diocese to diocese. If the current crisis is one of credibility, then wild inconsistencies between dioceses could exacerbate that problem rather than fix it. That, of course, is not an argument for one-size-fits-all national solutions, either. It’s simply to point out that at a time of crisis, consistency matters.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that reporting mechanisms and systems of accountability, while important, do nothing to address the root of the crisis, which is fundamentally a crisis of fidelity. In January, Pope Francis made this point to the American bishops:
Loss of credibility calls for a specific approach, since it cannot be regained by issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flow charts, as if we were in charge of a department of human resources. That kind of vision ends up reducing the mission of the bishop and that of the Church to a mere administrative or organizational function in the “evangelization business.” Let us be clear: many of those things are necessary yet insufficient, since they cannot grasp and deal with reality in its complexity; ultimately, they risk reducing everything to an organizational problem.
To that, I say amen . . . while also praying more bishops follow the lead of their brothers in Baltimore and Boston.
© 2019 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.