Put Out into the Deep

Results of an Intense Bishops’ Meeting

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Upon returning from the Spring General Meeting of the Bishops of the United States, I am happy to report the results of our very intense meeting.

A major topic was following up on the Holy Father’s statement, “You are the Light of the World” (Vos estis lux mundi), which establishes new procedural rules to combat abuse. In that Motu Proprio, which is considered Church law by virtue of the Holy Father’s authorship, Pope Francis has mandated that all Bishops conferences around the world institute policies for the reporting of sexual abuse of minors and young people, especially any bishop who is involved in the mishandling of any case.

In addition, he mandates an independent reporting system that would make these types of reports easily available to the faithful.

Much of this important work had already been accomplished at the Bishops’ November 2018 meeting; however, it was not finalized pending the outcome of the law for the Universal Church.

I am happy to say that the Bishops of the United States were well ahead of other episcopal conferences in many ways, given our experience in developing programs that facilitated the work of reconciliation with victims.

It has been said where problems still remained was holding bishops accountable; first for their own personal activity, but also for the proper handling of these cases.

First of all, it must be said that knowledge of abuse is always difficult to obtain in a timely manner so that it can be immediately acted upon. This must be understood. It is rather difficult for past events to be presented today completely and without distortion.

It also must be said that today any bishop who has been accused and found guilty of his own sexual impropriety has been removed from office. So, in general, the system in place is working.

The Holy Father’s wish, however, is that all of the episcopal conferences should have a mandate solidified in a process to report sexual abuse and its handling by bishops. The document, You Are the Light of the World, reminds bishops that we are the successors of the Apostles and we must shed light on the Gospel.

Even at times when the darkness enters, we must light up the way so that Christ’s light can shine

Three Key Documents

There were basically three documents that were considered and overwhelmingly approved. The first was a third-party reporting system similar to an “ethics point/whistleblower” system, which will be telephonic and web-based.

This is how anyone can report an impropriety regarding the activity of any bishop or lack of activity in a particular case. Many details need to be worked out, however, in general, this was called for by the Papal document and has been sent into motion by the United States Bishops.

The second document was affirming our episcopal commitments where bishops pledge themselves to uphold the Motu Proprio of the Holy Father, as well as strictly adhering to any new programs that will foster transparency.

Finally, the third document affirmed the system whereby the Metropolitan Archbishop of each
Province, of which there are 22 in the United States, would be designated to receive complaints about
other bishops. If a complaint was about the Metropolitan Archbishop, it would go to the Senior Suffragan or the oldest Suffragan Bishop in the Province.

This is a complicated matter which needs to be worked out. But again, when this is a non-criminal action the Metropolitan can use his power. When it is crime, however, it must be reported, as all other crimes must be reported, directly to civil authorities.

This is necessary so that there is no hint of cover-up or indication that somehow the Church is policing
ourselves as Bishops. When all is said and done, I believe that we have strengthened the system of episcopal responsibility.

This now makes it both rather clear and rather onerous on a bishop to make sure that he oversees the work of justice in regard to not only himself, but also to those for whom he is responsible.

Involvement of the Laity

There was a report given to all of the bishops by the National Review Board. The report recommended the involvement of the laity in the process for the Metropolitan adjudication system, which was identified.

Since 2002, it has been the practice to use lay review boards, with only one or two members of the clergy. Some laity are the ones  who investigate any accusation that is sent to the bishop and make a final recommendation to the Metropolitan.

There are other important issues that were discussed at the meeting; new guidelines for the Permanent Deacons in the United States, and a new translation of the Ordination Rites for Deacons, Priests and Bishops.

Death Penalty

Finally, another important issue was the updating of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to include a new statement on the death penalty.

St. John Paul II, in “The Gospel of Life,” showed that the teaching on the death penalty has evolved. Basically, we say now, “Consequently, the Church teaches in light of the Gospel that the death penalty is inadmissible because of the attack on the viability and dignity of the person.”

While this is not an absolute prohibition on the death penalty, this clearly states that the death penalty is
no longer justifiable or reasonable. This is an affirmation that the use of the death penalty is deeply flawed and does not promote the culture of life.

Dealing With Complex Issues

These Bishops’ meetings are not vacations, but rather very intense hours of long and detailed meetings. This
year I will come soon to the conclusion of my own episcopal ministry.

Although retired bishops are welcomed to attend the meetings, they may not vote on any items. Most probably I will continue to serve as a consultant to the boards of the USCCB Migration Committee and the
Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), as I have been asked to do.

It will be my privilege to offer whatever service I can in the future. I believe that the faithful must
understand that each time the bishops attend these meetings we do put out into the deep waters; sometimes in conflict and in ambiguity.

By the Grace of God, however, we are able to deal with complex issues for the good of the Church and find solutions that lead us into the future.

U.S. bishops at their spring meeting earlier this month produced guidelines on how to hold themselves accountable. Some of the measures are available for viewing here.