The Dispatch: More from CWR...

The ball is now in the bishops’ court

It has become increasingly clear that the crisis, although involving the abuse scandal and the bishops’ response, is a far larger matter that raises profound issues of authority, accountability, and participatory decision-making.

Prelates pray before the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel during a day of prayer Nov. 12, 2018 at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

When the U.S. bishops gather in plenary assembly in Baltimore two months from now, their immediate task will be putting in place a new system of episcopal accountability in dealing with sex abuse. Its elements will likely include a code of conduct for themselves, a hotline for receiving complaints, and a framework for judging bishops who commit abuse or cover it up when committed by others.

The bishops were preparing to vote on just such a system at their general meeting last November when Pope Francis told them to put off acting until after his “summit” on sex abuse in February. Now the bishops should find it relatively easy to adopt a plan for accountability at their June 11-13 gathering, and the Vatican, one assumes, should find it easy to say yes.

And then the bishops will have put the crisis in the Church arising from the abuse scandal behind them, and everything will get back to normal.

Except, of course, that it won’t. And arguably shouldn’t.

As time has passed it has become increasingly clear that the crisis, although obviously involving the abuse scandal and the bishops’ response, is a far larger matter that raises profound issues of authority, accountability, and participatory decision-making. In Baltimore the bishops would do well to take preliminary steps toward addressing these matters by authorizing a feasibility study of a plenary council or regional synod for the United States.

Here we can learn from the Church in Australia.

Australian Catholics have suffered their own dark night lately. Morale has taken a beating from clergy sex abuse and the conviction of Cardinal George Pell on charges of abusing two boys years ago. (The Cardinal is appealing the decision.) But, nothing daunted, the Church is pressing ahead with plans for a two-session plenary council in October 2020 and May 2021. Over 20,000 suggestions have come from 75,000 Catholics in “listening and dialogue” sessions hoping for a turn-around.

The idea of doing something similar here is by no means new.

Following the famous Dallas assembly in 2002 at which the bishops adopted a “zero tolerance” policy on abuse, eight bishops circulated a proposal for a plenary council to address the underlying issues brought to light by the scandal. They included Bishop Daniel DiNardo of Sioux City, Iowa—now Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. conference of bishops–and Auxiliary Bishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, originator of the idea, who is now Detroit’s archbishop. The proposal generated discussion but ultimately was not acted upon.

The time has come to revive it—not as a panacea but as a realistic way of addressing urgent needs. A plenary council with voting participation by bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and laity is the highest form of legislative assembly for the Church in a particular country. If approved by the Holy See, its decisions are law. There were three such gatherings in the U.S. in the 19th century but there has been none since. And if a plenary council is not the best approach now, a regional synod, perhaps more appealing in the present pontificate, is a workable alternative.

The Catholic Church is an unusual entity whose fundamental structure is simultaneously hierarchical and communitarian. The tension this creates can be fruitful or destructive, depending on what Catholics make of it. The hierarchical dimension has long been dominant, but the time has come to give far more attention to the communitarian dimension than it now receives. The crisis is real, the need is obvious. The next move is up to the bishops.

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About Russell Shaw 282 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. Oh please, “listening and dialogue” sessions are another installment of the American bishops’ tactics of delay, deflect, and deny. Anyone who can read a newspaper or view a news portal on the internet knows the length and breadth and depth of their betrayal of the Catholic faith and their profound corruption, and that includes the bishops themselves. The com boxes on these thousands and thousands of stories should give them everything they need to know, and it is not much. The Catholic faithful in this country — and I mean the Catholics who actually go to Mass on Sundays, believe Church doctrine, and follow magisterial Church teaching — are not crying out for “a code of conduct for themselves, a hotline for receiving complaints, and a framework for judging bishops who commit abuse or cover it up when committed by others” but for Catholic bishops to start believing and acting like Catholic bishops. The time for “policies and procedures” is long gone. What is required is ACTION by these hireling shepherds to cleanse the filth of homosexuality and pederasty completely from our Church. If that is not done and soon, I fear that we will witness an eruption of the anger and disgust that have been building for 30 and even 50 years.

    • Absolutely! Well said!

      I like to use an analogy about this issue when speaking about it with my friends. It is as if a house has leaking plumbing and people in it are getting wet. For the longest time, the leaky pipes were ignored and tacitly accepted. The people who got wet were ignored or given a towel and told to go dry off.

      Eventually it was decided that people shouldn’t get wet, so discussions were held about the leaky pipes, and policies and procedures were put in place to protect the people in the house from getting wet any further, and punishments were established for those who allowed someone to get wet, but this didn’t stop the leaky pipes which still surrounded them.

      Ultimately, the leaky pipes need to be repaired or replaced. If they aren’t, the structure of the house will eventually rot and collapse, regardless of how many people we are able to keep dry.

      The house is our Church. The people are the laity and young seminarians. The leaky pipes are the morally deviant clergy amongst us. Getting wet is the sexual abuse which has been perpetrated by that morally deviant clergy and the Church hierarchy which has turned a blind eye to the issue.

      What is needed is action to remove the moral rot that pervades our Church, not just to protect us from it, and the removal of Church leaders who fail to take action.

  2. Perhaps the main “underlying issue” is that there is not much “under-lying” but an abundance of lying.

    “The crisis is real, the need is obvious. The next move is up to the bishops.”

    Go directly to law enforcement, the civil authorities.

    Consider Bergoglio’s own inconsistent sense of “zero tolerance “and Bergoglio’s surgically implanted, conversation guider, Cupich.

    The laity must own “zero tolerance.”

    • C’mom, lets look at history. The scandal of 2002
      was never resolved. It merely got worse. The
      clergy can’t be allowed to investigate themselves.
      They have already failed miserably. Time for the
      long arm of secular law enforcement, i.e. RICO.
      Don Black
      Rome, Ga.

  3. April 12th: It is mind boggling that Bishops have to come up with a code of behavior – if they don’t know by now how they should behave then they should go into a monastery and live a life of prayer and penance. This going back and forth, up and down, in and out trying to figure out a moral code is – disturbing. Just live the Gospel as taught by Jesus in all its fullness and dimensions. Study the life of Christ and of the saints and then discuss that among yourselves…how you may follow the example of Christ and His saints. Nothing more, nothing less.

  4. Good article overall, though frankly I’m suspicious of “listening and dialogue” sessions involving the laity. While the church probably couldn’t have something identical to the system of checks and balances in the U.S. constitution, I do think we can learn from it. One big problem here is that bishops cannot govern their own–few people can. If your boss or trusted subordinate has a sexual harassment complaint against him/her, are you the one to investigate? No. In addition, the hierarchical nature of the culture in the church puts obedience and deference to authority over doing the simple, common sense and morally right thing. Think about it–in a sane world, Archbishop Gomez would order Mahony to stay away from public events (certainly confirmations) on pain of arrest. And he’d tell Rome to piss off. We don’t live in a sane world; I think sometimes this absolutist notion of obedience has emasculated the clergy into being fearful and protecting their own hides.

    Back to the structural issue. We need national or regional bodies that have an investigative and juridical function–and that have a good measure of independence and autonomy. They should be run by professionals–judges, attorneys, ex-FBI agents. They should be transparent as well as give due process to the rights of the accused. A lot of commenters here dismiss the need for policies and procedures. I too am underwhelmed by HR statements, but we do need structures and clear rules about how to handle these problems. There can be and is nuance in sex abuse and misbehavior. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all.

  5. As much as I respect Russell Shaw and value his insights, I find his intervention strangely myopic. There is no point to a synod or council, or whatever, if the great issues to be addressed are “authority, accountability, and participatory decision-making” without any reference to clerical and particularly episcopal homosexuality. So far from helping, a council or synod that ignores that factor will actually be a further setback, as it will only further separate the episcopacy from the mind and sentiments and fervent desires of faithful Catholics.

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