By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
BALTIMORE – After three days of intense debate over the role of the laity in overseeing bishops accused of abuse or its cover-up, the U.S. Catholic bishops voted to enact new standards for holding bishops accountable that include lay involvement, although stopping short of making it a mandatory requirement.
While three major proposals were voted on Thursday, during the final day of their annual spring assembly, the most significant vote was to approve directives to enact Pope Francis’ new universal laws on bishop accountability on a local level. The document was approved by a vote of 218-1 with an emphasis on how the laity “should” be involved in the process.
Issued in May, Vos estis mux lundi (“You are the light of the world”) is the product of last February’s Vatican summit on abuse where Pope Francis pledged an “all-out war” on abuse. The new law – known as a “motu proprio” – makes it mandatory for all clerics and members of religious orders to report cases of clerical sexual abuse to Church authorities, including when committed by bishops or cardinals.
For cases in which a bishop is being accused of abuse or its cover-up, Vos estis relies on the metropolitan archbishop to conduct an investigation and allows for the involvement of lay experts in the process to ensure proper oversight and accountability.
At the start of this week’s meeting, it seemed uncertain to what extent lay experts could or would be utilized in that process.
During the ensuing debates, the bishops sought to maximize lay involvement, as allowed for by Vos estis, while at the same time doing so in a way that was in accord with the universal law of the Church.
At the start of the meeting, numerous bishops, as well as the National Review Board (NRB) and the National Advisory Council (NAC), insisted that directives being voted on specify that the involvement of the laity in investigating must be made mandatory rather than as a recommendation.
Final language in the proposals dictate that “each metropolitan, in consultation with the suffragan bishops, should appoint on a stable basis, even by means of an ecclesiastical office, a qualified lay person to receive reports of conduct about bishops.”
The final language is the result of over 20 amendments that were proposed throughout the week – a process that was managed by the USCCB’s Canonical Affairs Committee.
The directives go on to enumerate the responsibilities of lay person, which would include: Interacting with the third-party entity which would receive reports against bishops; receiving reports itself; and informing the public about how to report cases involving bishops.
As open debate over the document took place on Wednesday, Bishop Shawn McKnight took to the floor to make a final case for the compulsory inclusion of lay people in the process.
“Lay involvement should be mandatory to make darn sure that we bishops do nor harm the church in the way in which we have harmed the church,” said Bishop McKnight.
“Who can deny that this is not the most important issue of our generation?” he asked.
Some bishops raised concerns that the process of investigating bishops could be slowed down in Rome, however Archbishop Jose Gomez, Vice-President of USCCB, sought to reassure the bishops that this would not be case.
“The Holy See is aware of the urgency of these matters and are responding as fast as possible to the specific situations in the United States,” he said.
After the passage of the directives, Bishop Robert Deeley, Chairman of USCCB’s canonical affairs committee, thanked the bishops for their patience during the process, adding that it had been “a long, difficult year for all of us.”
Following the vote, Bishop Michael Olson of Forth-Worth, Texas told The Tablet that he sees the vote as a response to Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis’s call for a “reciprocal responsibility of laity, bishops, and priests.”
“That reciprocal responsibility is ultimately to the truth and a clear path to obtaining the truth and living by it,” he said. “The goal is not uncharted for us as a Church for the integrity of the gospel mission and the ministry of her ministry, but the means for getting to that is somewhat uncharted, and so we rely on the Holy Spirit and integral collaboration to get there.”
Vos estis enacts these new standards for accountability for a period of three years, after which time the Holy See will review the protocols, which is reflected in the newly approved USCCB directives.
In addition, the bishops voted to approve a new document, “Affirming our Episcopal Commitments,” sought to recall the vows and obligations of bishops. The three-page document was approved by a vote of 217-1.
“Some bishops have failed in keeping to these promises by committing acts of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct themselves,” the document states. “Others have failed by not responding morally, pastorally, and effectively to allegations of abuse or misconduct perpetuated by other bishops, priests, and deacons. Because of these failures, the faithful are outraged, horrified, and discouraged.”
The document pledges “full support” to adherence to Vos estis and specifically addresses the way the Church has previously failed to understand the extent of the scandal of the abuse crisis.
“We understand ‘scandal’ not only in terms of how such allegations damage the image of the Church, but more so in how such sinful behavior injures the victim and causes others to lose faith in the Church,” the document states. “Our first response will be to provide for the pastoral care of the person who is making the allegation, as well as follow the established church and civil procedures to investigate.”
Finally, the bishops voted by a vote of 212 to 4 to approve a new a 9-page “protocol regarding available non-penal restrictions on bishops.”
The document outlines new accountability measures for emeriti bishops who have resigned or been removed from office due to “grave acts of commission or omission.”
In addition, the new protocol invests the diocesan bishop with the ability to restrict the bishop emeritus’s ministry within the local church and to make requests of the Holy See for a broader prohibition of his ministry. The document also notes that the USCCB president, in consultation with the Administrative Committee, can request for such bishops to no longer attend USCCB meetings.
Such a move could have broad implications for individuals such as Bishop Robert Finn, the retired bishop of Kansas City-Saint Joseph, who is the only U.S. bishop to be convicted of the crime of failure to report a priest suspected of abuse to civil authorities, yet nevertheless was in attendance at this week’s meetings and in the room during the vote.
On Wednesday, the bishops voted overwhelming to design a third party reporting system, which will function as a national hotline for reporting allegations against bishops.
The vote on Wednesday provided approval for the USCCB’s Executive Committee to develop a more detailed reporting system before a full vote by the bishops later this year in November and will serve to meet the requirement in Vos estis that every bishops’ conference around the world must establish a “public, stable and easily accessible” system for submitting abuse claims by June 2020.
Following Thursday morning’s voting, the bishops entered into executive session for the afternoon. Their next meeting will take place in November of this year.
This story will be updated.