The US Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement today, which for the first time gives Catholics some small reason to hope that maybe — just maybe — the episcopal leadership of the Church in the United States, at least, is beginning to understand the nature and gravity of the crisis their protracted failure has precipitated.
Issued by the Administrative Committee of the USCCB — the principal governing body of the Conference outside plenary session — the statement outlined four steps the Administrative Committee has taken on its own authority to address the crisis. Those steps are, in full:
- Approval of the establishment of a third-party reporting system that will receive confidentially, by phone and online, complaints of sexual abuse of minors by a bishop and sexual harassment of or sexual misconduct with adults by a bishop and will direct those complaints to the appropriate ecclesiastical authority and, as required by applicable law, to civil authorities.
- Instructions to the USCCB Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance to develop proposals for policies addressing restrictions on bishops who were removed or resigned because of allegations of sexual abuse of minors or sexual harassment of or misconduct with adults, including seminarians and priests.
- Initiation of the process of developing a Code of Conduct for bishops regarding the sexual abuse of a minor; sexual harassment of or sexual misconduct with an adult; or negligence in the exercise of his office related to such cases.
- Support for a full investigation into the situation surrounding Archbishop McCarrick, including his alleged assaults on minors, priests, and seminarians, as well any responses made to those allegations. Such an investigation should rely upon lay experts in relevant fields, such as law enforcement and social services.
The Administrative Committee acknowledges that these steps are not adequate to address the full scope of the crisis. “This is only a beginning,” they write. They go on to call for broad consultation with concerned Catholics, including lay experts as well as clergy and religious, in order to develop and implement further measures. “We humbly welcome and are grateful for the assistance of the whole people of God in holding us accountable,” the Administrative Committee writes.
“Broad consultation” will likely not be enough to satisfy either the faithful or civil authorities with respect to the bishops’ bona fides in these regards. Responsible involvement of laity has become a sine qua non of any response to the crisis that wishes to have a hope of being credible.
Nevertheless, for the first time, the bishops frankly acknowledge that there is a general corrosion of moral culture within the ranks of the Church’s clerical and hierarchical leadership, which has destroyed the trust on which the bishops’ ability to lead must be based.
“Some bishops, by their actions or their failures to act, have caused great harm to both individuals and the Church as a whole,” the Administrative Committee writes at the top of their statement. “They have used their authority and power to manipulate and sexually abuse others,” they continue. “They have allowed the fear of scandal to replace genuine concern and care for those who have been victimized by abusers.” So forthright an admission of widespread failure and miscarriage of duty has been a long time coming. It is welcome, even though it does not satisfy.
One of the criticisms commentators and analysts — including this writer — have made of the bishops’ response, is that they have focused too exclusively on the case of Theodore McCarrick, giving the impression that they would have the faithful believe he was the problem, and not merely a grotesque and awful symptom of a systemic disease.
If such an acknowledgment was too long in coming and still not enough, it is a small step in the right direction. “For this, we again ask forgiveness from both the Lord and those who have been harmed,” the Administrative Committee says. “Turning to the Lord for strength,” they promise, “we must and will do better.”
The Administrative Committee concludes its statement with protestations of filial love for and loyalty to Pope Francis.
“Acting in communion with the Holy Father, with whom we once again renew our love, obedience, and loyalty,” they write, “we make our own the prayer of Pope Francis in his August 20 letter to the people of God: ‘May the Holy Spirit grant us the grace of conversion and the interior anointing needed to express before these crimes of abuse our compunction and our resolve courageously to combat them’.”
The Executive Committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops met with Pope Francis last Thursday to discuss the crisis. There were high hopes for that meeting heading into it, as the USCCB’s president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston had announced his intention to ask the Holy Father to sanction an Apostolic Visitation into the McCarrick affair and related issues.
The result of that meeting was an expression of desire, “[of] continuing our discernment together identifying the most effective next steps.”
Now, it falls to the US bishops to make good on their commitments. It belongs to the faithful to hold them to the promises they have made, and to demand a responsible part in even stronger measures — ones really apt, as the Administrative Committee says, “to repair the scandal and restore justice.” Whether this is a real beginning of that long and arduous work, or merely more empty words, remains to be seen.
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