U.S. Catholic bishops approve measures to hold themselves accountable

Jeremy Roebuck
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Catholic Bishops participates in a morning prayer, during the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2019 Spring meetings in Baltimore, Tuesday, Jun 11, 2019.

Baltimore – The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops overwhelmingly – though not unanimously – approved a new framework Thursday for policing their own conduct, hoping it would be enough to stanch a series of scandals that brought to light sexual misconduct and inaction within their ranks over the last year.

The measures include a new code of conduct, guidelines for restricting the ministry of retired problem prelates and a new system through which the Church will investigate bishops accused of mishandling abuse complaints or facing such allegations themselves.

But victims and their advocates responded with a collective shrug, saying the reforms still leave too much power in the hands of a hierarchy that has repeatedly failed to hold itself accountable.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, described the measures as a “work in progress,” as he presided over a series of votes that passed Thursday morning with little discussion.

The only serious debate to emerge centered on how strongly the new rules should let lay Catholics be involved in future investigations.

“Lay involvement should be mandatory to make darn sure that we bishops don’t harm the church in the way that bishops have harmed the church in the past, especially in light of what we’ve become aware of this past year,” said Bishop Shawn McKnight, of Jefferson City, Mo.

In the end, the bishops voted that the United States’ roughly 30 metropolitan archbishops – who will now be tasked with handling misconduct probes involving bishops in neighboring dioceses – should consult with civilian investigators and advisers at the initial phase of the process. But they stopped short of making it a mandatory requirement.

All findings will be submitted to Rome, which will retain its authority over bishop discipline and removal.

The adopted reforms come after a tumultuous year for the church, one that saw top leaders vilified for their handling of now-defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and included the retirement of Philadelphia native and former West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield amid claims of that he harassed priests or seminarians.

They also follow a road map laid out by Pope Francis last month. That edict was designed to provide a global response to the crisis that has threatened to overwhelm his papacy and embroiled the Church for nearly two decades.