By Ed Condon
The bishops of the United States return home after the USCCB General Assembly.
After a week’s worth of meetings and votes, they can point to real steps taken towards healing the breach of trust between the hierarchy and the faithful. But the passage of several worthy policy documents to one side, there is much work left for the bishops to do.
After a year marked by one episcopal scandal after another, the message the bishops take back to their diocese is more “job begun” than “job done.”
Four key measures were approved by overwhelming majorities during the sessions in Baltimore.
An independently administered, national reporting mechanism is to be set up, to ensure that complaints against bishops can be processed in a clear and credible way.
Directives for applying the pope’s new universal law Vos estis lux mundi were approved, laying out a clear role for lay involvement in the implementation of the “metropolitan model” for investigating allegations.
The weight of the last year’s scandals was addressed with an “Affirmation of Our Episcopal Commitments” by all the bishops: “Because of these failures, the faithful are outraged, horrified, and discouraged,” they wrote, while rededicating themselves to their core mission as shepherds and the high standards the people pews had every right to expect of them.
The bishops also passed, virtually without comment, a set of protocols explaining how a diocesan bishop can restrict the ministry of his retired predecessor when necessary, and made clear that the USCCB president could formally disinvite retired or resigned bishops from attending conference meetings.
By passing these four reforms, the bishops have given themselves a considerable amount of homework.
Contracting a vendor for the independent national reporting line has been left to the conference leadership, and will take some time to put in place – though it will be up and running no later than May next year. But once a complaint is made, the hotline will have to alert the appropriate metropolitan archbishop or senior suffragan -as well as the competent lay person each has designated to help in such cases.
Accounting for every metropolitan and senior suffragan, this means that for the national reporting mechanism to come online, 64 lay people have to be identified, trained, and put in place across the country – no small task. The USCCB have promised a set of guidelines to help with this process by Labor Day.
The question of lay involvement also carries over to the directives implementing Vos estis. During a closed meeting this week of the country’s 32 metropolitans, there was, according to more than one archbishop, unanimous agreement about the “indispensable” role of independent lay experts. But ensuring that each archbishop– and each senior suffragan bishop – can put in place an expert suitably qualified to add value to the process of evaluating allegations will not be done overnight.
Much work is still needed on the standards against which allegations are to be assessed.
The affirmation of episcopal responsibility commits every bishop to publish “clear explanations as to what constitutes sexual misconduct with adults, as well as what constitutes sexual harassment of adults.” Set within the wider question of what constitutes the sexual abuse of a “vulnerable” adult raised by Vos estis, every bishop in the country is now committed to drawing “clear” lines against which to measure the often very messy facts of individual cases, a legal and pastoral challenge the size of which many might not yet fully appreciate.
On Thursday, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark told CNA that there would necessarily be different definitions of misconduct and harassment in different dioceses, because each had to reflect civil laws in each state. Thirteen states plus the District of Columbia have laws criminalizing sexual contact between a religious minister and a congregant. But how such distinctions will play out canonically could prove problematic – few will likely be impressed if a bishop in one diocese can escape unpunished for behavior that would be termed serious misconduct in another.
Technical questions like these went largely undiscussed on the assembly floor in Baltimore, with debate finishing nearly two hours ahead of schedule – something which many of the bishops may yet come to see as a missed opportunity.
It is possible that having had to wait since their last meeting in November to pass measures aimed at showing substantive progress in response to scandals like that of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the U.S. bishops were in a hurry to cast their votes. But in their haste, the bishops may also have passed up a pastoral opportunity to speak directly to the faithful.
While acknowledging the “outrage and horror” of the faithful at the behavior of some bishops, few in the assembly hall expressed those emotions at the microphone.
While passing the protocols to limit the ministry of retired or resigned bishops under clouds of serious scandal, there was no debate or conversation about the clear cases to which they could be usefully and immediately applied.
While the president of the conference can now formally disinvite retired bishops from future meetings, no bishop rose to suggest this be extended immediately to cover, for example, Cardinal Roger Mahony, who attended the last session in November; Bishop Robert Finn, who was in Baltimore this week; Archbishop John Neinstedt; or Bishop Michael Bransfield, who was at the center of a damning report released just prior to the June meeting.
Seeing the bishops overcome their squeamishness at calling out their scandalous brethren is, to many faithful, more than just an exercise in catharsis.
Anonymous votes may signal unity, but they are unlikely to displace McCarrick as the image that comes to mind for many when they think of the American bishops; individual bad cases may be the small minority, but the majority remain essentially faceless for many ordinary Catholics. For all the solidarity behind the reforming measures in Baltimore, the assembly lacked a clear, urgent, moral voice denouncing the sins of the few and sharing the anger, not just the sadness of the faithful.
As they return to their dioceses, the bishops have considerable work still to do before they meet again. Much of that essential work will take place in chancery offices, but the more urgent – and likely more fruitful – work will be in the pulpit.