By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – When the U.S. Catholic bishops gather in Baltimore next week, the theme of their three-day meeting could largely be summed up as “unfinished business.”
For starters, there’s the unfinished business from seven months ago of enacting new guidelines for bishop accountability. Just ahead of last November’s meeting, the Vatican halted plans to vote for new guidelines for bishops, citing canonical concerns and faulting the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) leadership for not providing Rome adequate time to review the proposals.
More broadly, however, there’s the unfinished business from seventeen years ago of closing the gap in the Dallas Charter – the landmark 2002 document establishing new norms for child protection, which created a “zero tolerance” policy for a priests guilty of abuse, but omitted bishops from the same oversight.
In many respects, the Vatican has done the heavy lifting for this meeting, with last month’s new universal Church law, Vos estis lux mundi(“You are the light of the world”) issued by Pope Francis, which 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.
Known as a motu proprio, meaning a change to Church law under the pope’s authority, the law went into effect on June 1 and now it is up to bishops’ conferences from around the world to implement it on a local level, with a deadline of June 20, 2020 to have a system in place.
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.
When the U.S. bishops convene next Tuesday to Thursday, the “Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundiConcerning Bishops and their Equivalents,” will be put to a vote, which builds on the motu proprio’sframework and situates it in the U.S. context.
According to a draft of the proposed directives obtained by The Tablet, the 4-page document would establish a national third-party reporting system to receive complaints of abuse or cover-up and then report it to the appropriate ecclesial authorities.
Further, it invests the metropolitan archbishop with the authority to carry out an investigation into a bishop, noting that it is “highly encouraged” for him to “avail himself of an investigator” which could include a number of lay experts, and it leaves it up to the local province to finance the investigation.
Should the metropolitan archbishop be accused of abuse or cover-up, it falls to the suffragan bishop who has been a bishop longest to carry out the investigation.
In the United States, there are 32 territorial archdioceses throughout the country that would be responsible for overseeing such investigations for the smaller dioceses surrounding them.
The new directives differ from last November’s proposals, which called for an independent non-profit board to be established to review such cases. Vatican officials struck down the proposals as violating canon law for giving lay officials control over bishops, which ultimately only belong to the pope. The then-proposal would have also allowed for dioceses to opt-in to the program, however the new Vatican guidelines make such oversight universal.
Last Thursday, a conference call was held among the metropolitan bishops to discuss some of the specifics of the new model. According to several of the archbishops who spoke with The Tableton background following the meeting, many of the concerns at this point are centered on ironing out the specifics of the funding for the investigations and the mechanics of the third-party hotline.
One archbishop told The Tabletthat “I hope we publicly have a chance to thank Pope Francis for making us wait in November, because I think we’re going to come out of this with much stronger proposals.”
Another archbishop emphasized that the new Vatican guidelines will hold bishops responsible for their handling of abuse cases, even if it’s due to negligence or incompetence. “This puts us all on notice,” he said, “and provides the sort of accountability that we’ve been talking about.”
In April, USCCB Vice-President Archbishop José Gómez and Cardinal Joseph Tobin led a delegation to Rome to meet with Vatican curial officials in an effort to secure their support for the new guidelines and to prevent a repeat of the communications breakdown that happened in the fall.
Also up for a vote is a new document titled “Acknowledging Our Episcopal Commitments,” meant to serve as a reaffirmation of their vows. The document replaces the “Standards of Accountability for a Bishop,” which were proposed in November and aims to address the “legitimate questions and concerns raised” at the time.
The three-page document specifically states that the standards of the Dallas Charter apply to bishops as well as to priests and bishops, and says that “there can be no ‘double life,’ no ‘special circumstances,’ no ‘secret life’ in the practice of chastity.”
Lastly, a third document will be considered, a “Protocol Regarding Available Non-Penal Restrictions on Bishops,” which outlines new accountability measures for emeriti bishops who have resigned or been removed from office due to “grave acts of commission or omission.”
The document 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. In addition, the document notes that the USCCB president, in consultation with the Administrative Committee, can request for such bishops to no longer attend USCCB meetings.
The bishops had until last Monday to make amendments to the current draft texts, and the full body of U.S. bishops is expected to vote on all three documents next week, after the texts are finalized.
While efforts to respond to the wave of clergy abuse related scandals will likely dominate next week’s meeting, also on the agenda will be a report from the working group on Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, which proved to be a flashpoint at last summer’s meeting, as well as an update from the working group on immigration.
At least year’s June meeting, tensions emerged over whether to update Faithful Citizenship, the USCCB’s official voting guidelines in advance of the 2020 election. Some bishops argued that the current version of the document, which was last updated in 2015, failed to adequately reflect the teachings and emphases of Pope Francis.
In the end, the bishops’ voted to produce new materials to complement the document, including videos and a new brochure, subject to a review of its content by the full body of bishops.
On immigration – which until the abuse crisis surfaced last summer, was the dominant focus of the conference – the bishops will hear updates on efforts to provide greater protections for vulnerable groups such as DACA recipients and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, the work of Catholics along the border in welcoming asylum-seeking children and families, and building on the work of the Encuentro, last September’s gathering of Hispanic and Latino Catholics.
USCCB president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo is expected to preside over next week’s meeting, which will mark his first major public appearance after suffering a stroke in March.
Earlier this week, an Associated Pressinvestigation alleged that DiNardo mishandled a sexual misconduct case involving his former deputy in the archdiocese of Galveston-Houston – claims that DiNardo has strongly rejected.
Although the U.S. bishops were originally scheduled to meet this summer in California for a retreat, following last November’s delay in adopting new standards for bishop accountability, the USCCB opted to return to Baltimore for a standard business meeting for their spring assembly.
Reflecting on the new universal Vatican norms for accountability – and looking ahead to next week – one bishop told The Tabletthat, “the ball is now in our court.”
“Let’s pray we can finally get this done,” he added.