Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gather for the USCCB's annual fall meeting on Nov. 12, 2018, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Bishops continue to define response to sex abuse despite Vatican call for delay

BALTIMORE (RNS) — As the U.S. bishops' meeting in Baltimore ends today (Nov. 15), the most newsworthy happening is still Monday's last-minute instruction from the Vatican to delay any vote on new procedures to sanction or otherwise deal with bishops who had either abused children or failed to remove abusive priests from ministry.

The instruction, in the form of a letter from the Congregation of Bishops in Rome, threw the gathering in Baltimore into chaos on its opening day.

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, openly expressed his disappointment with the Vatican's intervention. He and other bishops felt their house was burning down, and the Vatican was asking them to delay turning on the fire hoses.

Other bishops were secretly relieved. Some questioned the proposals for how to deal with abuse, which had been put together quickly in response to the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Those who wanted the reforms to pass feared they would fail to get the necessary two-thirds vote for passage. Now both groups could buy time while blaming the Vatican for their inaction.

From any vantage, the Vatican intervention was extremely disappointing. It contradicts everything Francis has said about empowering bishops' conferences and decentralizing decision-making in the church. It was also a public-relations disaster for the pope, who is already losing the confidence of Catholics on the abuse issue, according to a September poll from the Pew Research Center: Only 31 percent of Catholics thought the pope was doing a good or excellent job handling the sex abuse scandal, down from 55 percent three years ago.

Though DiNardo didn't release the Vatican's letter, he and others explained that the Vatican worried that any procedures American bishops agreed on could pre-empt discussions at a meeting of the world's top bishops called by the pope for February. If the American procedures for dealing with bad bishops became a de facto template for the rest of the world, the congregation also sees the proposed actions as an infringement on its authority, arguing the conference has no authority over bishops.

The day was saved by Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of  Chicago, who suggested that the bishops continue discussing the proposals and treat them as recommendations that DiNardo, as USCCB president, could take to the February meeting.

There were three interrelated proposals on the agenda.

The first was a document titled “Standards of Episcopal Conduct,” which each bishop would be asked to sign. Since the conference has no canonical authority over bishops, each bishop would have to voluntarily commit himself to following the standards. This voluntary system was an attempt to deal with Vatican objections that only the pope can investigate and judge a bishop.

The seven-page document also states that the 2002 “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” applies to bishops as well as priests and deacons. It also deals with sexual harassment and sexual misconduct with an adult by a bishop. It reiterates the bishops’ commitment to the charter, including reporting abusive priests to police and removing them from ministry. It also commits the bishops to help in enforcing these norms on one another and to making sure that candidates for the episcopacy are truly suitable.

The second proposal called for a third-party reporting mechanism that would field accusations against bishops for failing to observe the above. Many organizations have such reporting mechanisms for dealing with misconduct by management. A third-party vendor would establish an “ethics hotline” for complaints.

These complaints would be referred to a special commission recommended in a third proposal. The commission of six laity and three clergy would review and investigate alleged violations of the Standards of Episcopal Conduct. The results would be sent to the nuncio, who represents the pope in the United States, since only the pope has the authority to punish bishops.

Some bishops also questioned the need for a special commission, saying it would be better to have the metropolitan archbishop handle investigations of bishops in his province using his archdiocesan review board. If the archbishop were accused, he would be investigated by the most senior bishop in the province. This, of course, has the same credibility problem as cops investigating cops.

Since the standards cite the 2002 charter, they could not be enforced retroactively. Thus, the review process could investigate only failure to protect children after 2002.

The McCarrick question was behind another document that described what to do about bishops who left their office due to sexual abuse, sexual misconduct or failure to protect children. It pointed out that a diocesan bishop could restrict the ministry of any retired bishop in his diocese.

It also suggested that the USCCB president could disinvite them from conference meetings. Robert Finn of Kansas City, James Timlin of Scranton and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, all of whom were condemned for their bad handling of abuse, were at this November meeting. Some bishops consider their presence an embarrassment.

DiNardo appointed an ad hoc task force of past presidents of the USCCB to finalize these proposals, including fleshing out two different options — one with a special commission and another using the metropolitans as the one to deal with accusations against a bishop. He also asked them to study national guidelines for the publication of names of clerics facing substantiated claims of abuse.

The calls for increased diligence raised questions for the bishops about the standard for putting a priest’s name on a public list of offenders. Bishops fear publicizing unsubstantiated allegations but also fear accusations of cover-up. Some bishops have left it to their diocesan review boards to determine whose names are made public.

There was also discussion about what terms like "credible" and "substantiated" allegations mean. Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City said he defined "credible" as "more likely than not." He also established another category, "judged unfit for ministry by the bishop."

It was difficult to judge the sense of the assembly since no votes were taken on the proposals. There was general agreement that their credibility was at stake.

DiNardo and others reported that their people were especially upset by the McCarrick scandal. Bishop Liam Cary of Baker was applauded when he called on the conference to censure McCarrick, but no one made the motion.

Many bishops called for a full report on how McCarrick could be promoted in the church despite his sexual harassment of seminarians. The bishops considered a resolution encouraging the Holy See to release all the documentation regarding the allegations against McCarrick, but it failed by a vote of 83 to 137 after it was pointed out that the Holy See had already promised a report.

In any case, the Vatican and the dioceses where he served need to come clean.

On the other hand, some bishops, like Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, continued to spout nonsense in blaming the abuse crisis on dissident theologians who objected to the church’s ban on artificial contraception. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco called for a study of the relationship between homosexuality and sexual abuse.

Bishops were the problem, not theologians and gays!

The delay puts more pressure on the February meeting in Rome called by the pope to deal with clerical abuse. Great hopes, perhaps unrealistic hopes, are now being placed on this meeting of episcopal conference presidents. Granted that the U.S. bishops are way ahead of most bishops of the world in dealing with abuse, this meeting may be another disappointment. Four days will not be enough time to deal with this crisis on a worldwide basis.

The slowness of the hierarchy in dealing with sexual abuse and episcopal accountability is discouraging. Hopefully, the time will be used to continue to study the issues and develop better policies and procedures. Meanwhile, the bishops and the Vatican need to recognize that the house is burning, and people are heading for the exit.

(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)


  1. Bishops were the problem, not theologians and gays!

    Yep. And all the cheap and easy scapegoating is not going to divert the attention of thinking, conscientious people from that fact — no matter how hard some of the bishops try the cheap and easy irresponsible tricks.

  2. Archbishop Cordileone is correct (and also he’s in line with both the Official Catholic Catechism and the John Jay Report).

    But those two documents seriously do NOT mean much of anything, in the Age Of Francis.

  3. Cordeleone is, as usual, filled with hatred and untruth — two un-Christlike qualities. But then, rather than accept the blame, he wants a scapegote, and floydlee is happy to hate along with him.

  4. So, the Fr. Reese says the perpetrators were NOT the problem, and you agree.

  5. Would you like Archbishop Cordeoleone’s address so you can share your assessment with him?

  6. No actually he isn’t in line with any objective reports of abuse by clergy. But then again it is far easier to scapegoat a hated out group than one up to a culture of cover up, disdain for civil authority, and undue deference and privilege.

    Keep defining religious belief by who you hate and l!e on their behalf. It’s not like you are looking to be respected or trying to uphold moral values.

  7. It is absolutely great that the bishops continued their discussion. They made clear some of the impediments to a bishops conference actually dealing with a problem of a bishop who abuses or covers up the abuse of another. This includes the fact the each bishop is effectively a prince ruling over a princedom and is only answerable to the equivalent of the king – the pope who sits in Rome. Bishop A really has no power over Bishop B and a whole conference of bishops really have no power to enforce decisions about any single bishop.

    They opened up the idea of using lay committees or committees with some lay people to evaluate accusations. They wrestled some with the problem of knowing when to put a priests name on a list of those “credibly accused” when guilt or innocence is not yet really known. They have ideas about how far to go that could be useful in the discussions in February at the Vatican.

    I sincerely hope other bishops conferences are doing the same thing. Much of what we can do here is not the same as what can be done in other places – because culture and laws are so different. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all solution to how bishops should/could be held accountable for rules that help prevent sex abuse of children or of those less powerful, for covering up abuse (what is a “cover-up” in the U.S. may be different from a “cover-up” in a different culture. Perhaps there can be a standard for how a bishop who actually commits abuse is handled – and it needs to include at least a removal of the title of “bishop” if not a removal from the clerical state.

    Now, having gotten all excited about the possibilities, I also don’t think this can be handled in a meeting of a few days in the Vatican. There are elements of Church law that are part of the problem – secrecy of decisions made at the Vatican and why those decisions were made and the lack of any power structure between a bishop and the pope. Maybe Pope Francis has already had some theologians, Church historians, and Canon Law specialist working on how to make changes on some issues that seem to be written in stone. If not, he needs to do that and do it expeditiously. Not 10 years – a max of 2 years.

    It may be time for Holy Tradition to give way to modern reality. For sure, Francis needs to find a way for the USCCB and for the 2020 Australian Plenary Council to act in ways that give reassurance to Catholics in those countries that the mud of inaction, inept action, and half-way action can be cleaned away. If those same steps that need to be taken here and in Australia would not be the right steps in some other countries, too bad, but deal with it.

  8. The John Jay Report, both 2004 & 2011, are consistent & objective on the numbers and the targets.

    The Numbers: 81% of abuse encounter’s were same-sex oe homosexual. Bottom Line: Men going after young innocent males, for meat.

    The Targets, the clear majority of them were post-pubescent boys. (But that ain’t counting all them young adult seminarians that McCarrick and other gay priests hunted down.)

    But you, me & every Catholic on the planet, knows the truth. Cordileone’s proposal leads directly to World War 3, because all the fake excuses would disappear. Catholicism would be ripped apart, & big stress for all of us.

    But Cordileone is still proposing the right thing, all the same.

  9. LOL! If one ignores the multitude of studies which show that child molestation is not a function of orientation but opportunity. People were more likely to leave boys in the care of priests than girls.

    But such facts don’t work well when trying to avoid a culture of cover-up and privilege over civil authority. None of which explains the regular practice of covering up such incidents. “The Big Gay Cabal” only comes from people like yourself. Those looking to avoid the obvious and attack a despised group for its own sake. People who are not exactly known for objectivity or ability to present facts in a credible manner.

  10. Bishop Tobin says: “If the events of the summer … can do such devastating damage to our moral credibility … what was our credibility built on that it can be so sucked away?” (See Jack Jenkins article in RNS 11/15/18)

    And then Fr. Tom mentions a “nonsense” intervention from Phoenix Bishop Olmsted. Here is how Crux summarized it: “…Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona and Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond, Virginia compared the present moment to the dissent of Catholic theologians, priests, and laity who opposed the Church’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae banning artificial birth control and urged full unity and reaffirmation of all of the teachings, as well as the leadership of the Church.”

    Wow. That from Olmsted and Tobin wonders how credibility “can be so sucked away.” That credibility has been waning for decades in part because the laity do not accept the teachings on birth control. They do accept the idea of civil gay marriage. They would have no problem with married priests or female priests, male and female sterilization when medically needed or when the wanted family size is reached. They think contraceptives should be available in health insurance. They even by a slim majority (in this country) think abortion should remain legal.

    One more, very recent mistake of bishops that will be part of what drives more young people away – the support of bishops for the election of Trump over Clinton. A bit more than 50% of Catholics voted for Trump in part because of the “teaching” from bishops on the ultra importance of two very narrow issues: abortion and the “religious freedom” to not have contraceptives in health insurance and to discriminate against LGBT people. Trump is a disaster and he will not end abortions because a majority of voters in this nation want abortion to remain legal. It might be possible for the courts to put the issue back in the hands of state legislatures – not sure of that since there really is an issue of the basic freedom of women to control the uses of their bodies. But, the hope that state legislatures will continue to be dominated by Republican gerrymandering and manipulation of voting rights and opportunities is fading. People have come to see the manipulation for what it is and the hypocrisy of the Republican spouting about democracy when they are acting to deny voting rights and opportunities to so many. Republicans lost big this time, more women got elected to state and national offices. Do you think the ultra christian conservative white male hegemony in state legislatures is going to continue? I don’t.

    I do think important the work of the bishops during this conference to continue to discuss and explore options they have in addressing the problem of sex abuse and accountability of bishops. They can make a valuable contribution to the February Vatican meeting.

    But it isn’t the only work that needs to happen. Learn to listen to your people. Seek to know the real life experience and the wisdom of the laity. Know that you aren’t nearly as all knowing as you think you are.

  11. A deliberate conflation of child sexual abuse with homosexuality.

    A deliberate conflation of sexual orientation with behavior.

    A deliberate conflation of adult homosexual orientation with an attraction to post-pubescent boys simply because the latter now have some pubic hair.

    A deliberate ignoring of the fact of the catholic problem: 100% of the abusers are male, 100% of the abusers are catholic priests, and most importantly: 100% of the people whop covered up, ignored, or enabled the abuse of children are male catholic priests, the sexual orientation of whom are either unknown or irrelevant or both.

    A deliberate ignoring of the well known facts that 1) The vast majority of sexual abuse occurs within the holy hetero family, and 2) that the vast majority of the victims in that particular instance are underaged girls– pre-pubescent girls, post pubescent girls, and 3) the perpetrators are their own fathers and step fathers, and 4) no one, but no one, calls this a problem with heterosexuality, a heterosexual mafia, the heterosexual danger, and so on.

    Put it all together: you have your own agenda.

  12. Since the Catholic Church had no credibility with you to begin with, having joined the Charles Curran Fan Club in the ’60s, I am not sure that “That credibility has been waning for decades in part because the laity do not accept the teachings on birth control.” signifies any objective reality.

  13. “A deliberate ignoring of the fact of the catholic problem: 100% of the abusers are male”.

    That would certainly be news to the various persons who have accused religious sisters and nuns and lay teachers of abuse.

    Unless and until a study is made of the impact of homosexuality among the clergy, and in particular among the leadership (McCarrick comes to mind), your position is simply that; a position, an opinion, a tout.

    That it comes from a self-proclaimed opponent of the Catholic Church who has voiced his anger at that Church for opposing what he endorses, makes it inherently very suspect.

    It also involves a deliberate ignoring of the well known fact that 81% of the abuse was male-on-male.

  14. I believe that “It may be time for Holy Tradition to give way to modern reality.” was the motto of the so-called Reformation.

  15. Excellent analysis. Thank you. I don’t think to this day the bishops understand the damage that Humanae Vitae did to the bond between laity and the institutional Church.

  16. Yes bob, I understand.
    Yes Jose, I understand
    Yes, mark, I understand.
    I would note two things:
    1) my statements actually address your contention about male-on-male abuse. I know a good deal about it. You obviously don’t. And,
    2) that I have not posted ANYTHING since you were banned from these pages. That you are able to proclaim I am a “self-proclaimed opponent of the catholic Church” mere confirms what everyone knows– that Bob arnzen, Jose carioca, and now, Mark Connelly, are all the same person. I am aware of at least two other of your identities as well.

    I’m sure if the moderators here at RNS are interested in finding out the truth of the matter, they will be able to ban you again.

  17. “I also don’t think this can be handled in a meeting of a few days in the Vatican”

    It is very likely that Francis and Vatican officials are planning to have those few days very tightly choreographed. Since nothing else they have done has worked all that well, this may not either.

  18. Anyone who does not understand the 50 years of hoopla about Humanae Vitae needs a brain transplant.

    It did separate the Catholics from the also-rans like Charles Curran, which in the long run was beneficial.

  19. It signifies a reality for millions and millions of Catholics. I may not be as dogmatic a Catholic as you are but I am a Catholic. So is the Catholic who sits at Mass with you and also takes birth control pills, thinks civil gay marriage is right, deplores the way so many bishops have treated LGBT members of their faith community. So is the Catholic in Ireland who voted to make abortion legal. So are the Catholics in many countries who voted to make gay marriage legal and truly believes in the blessing of God on committed and loving marriages of LGBT people. Being Catholic comes in many flavors and with many different compromises made by Catholics on what they accept and doubt about the teachings of the Church and what they love about the practice of the faith.

  20. It’s “absolutely” great, huh? Not simply “great,” “absolutely great!” What does that even mean?
    “Hey Bob, how are you doing?”
    “Oh man, I’m absolutely okay.”

  21. “It signifies a reality for millions and millions of Catholics.”

    If millions and millions of Catholics jumped off a bridge, would YOU jump off the bridge?

    No need to answer that, you’ve already made it clear.

    “….but I am a Catholic.”

    Well ….

    You may want to read my exchange with Aliquantillus here:

    Aliquantillus argues that you are not a Catholic.

    I argued that:

    “We are culpable for our acts of will, not for the absence of information, including the information that we don’t have the information we need when we have been catechized to the contrary.”

    which means, for example, that an individual baptized Catholic but not properly catechized remains a Catholic, but an ignorant Catholic like those millions and millions.

    Now, if you’re saying that you know what the Church teaches, and know what it teaches you need to believe, and you reject that teaching, well whatever the result is, it is not Catholic, is it?

    Throwing “deplores the way so many bishops have treated LGBT members of their faith community” in with “takes birth control pills” which contravenes a teaching and “thinks civil gay marriage is right” which skates along the line is a cute rhetorical trick of equating black and white, but it does not advance an argument.

    “So is the Catholic in Ireland who voted to make abortion legal.”

    Any Catholic who voted to make abortion legal knowing what it entails and the Church’s position on it committed a mortal sin.

    As to what “they love about the practice of the faith”, they apparently want the hamburger bun of bells, smells, and ceremony, but wish to leave the burger, tomato, and lettuce behind.

  22. FHRITP,

    It was possible once word came from the Vatican that they were not to vote on the sex abuse issues, that the whole issue would be dropped from the discussions of this meeting. That would have been a big mistake. Discussion’s did occur that explored issues that need to be addressed, alternatives ways to address a problem, impediments to this solution versus that solution. There were just no votes. That meeting in February is one where some already thought out proposals can be considered but it will be too short for discussion that start from scratch.

    If friend Bob had gone through something horrific personally or in his family, a response to a casually asked “how are you doing?” could well include a strongly phrased response. I think the Church family is reeling. The word from the Vatican was disappointing to the bishops, but they found a way to continue to move forward when they could have dissolved into recriminations against the pope – or worse, stony silence on the issue. Yeah – it was “absolutely great”.

    What issues discussed do you think were important and what do you think the bishops may have missed?

  23. Yes, excellent analysis.

    The Catholic church has not had any moral credibility for CENTURIES–at least, not among people who know its history: fomenting Jew hatred, anti-democracy ideas, attempting to use its political influence when it is BARRED from doing that if it’s a 501(c)3 organization, attempting to ban movies and books (“can you say “Banned in Boston”, boys and girls?”) and so on.

    Here’s a note of interest: in the recent election, at least 153 individuals who are LGBT were elected–including bisexual Sen. Sinema of AZ, Colorado gay Gov., and many others. The Catholic church is losing its influence, something for which all who love democracy and liberty can be grateful.

    As well, the number of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse is increasing. They’re coming out of the woodwork.

    The Catholic church will NEVER have the “moral” influence it once had. Wonderful!

  24. “Some questioned the proposals for how to deal with abuse, which had been put together quickly in response to the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.”

    The only reason the propsals were put together quickly is because the RCC has been deliberately covering up the epidemic of abuse for decades. Many of these bishops and their predecessors are not a whit morally different than tobacco execs who spent years lying about the harm of their product.

  25. I don’t agree that the Catholic Church lacks “any” moral credibility. It has a lot of moral credibility. But that credibility is waning. Or, maybe one way to put it is that Catholics are much more willing to disbelieve some teachings while still believing other teachings, and much more willing to be open about it.

    I think this is happening in many religious faiths – especially where there is this assumption that the tenets of the faith are written in stone, are directly from God, that what is believed and how the faith is practiced are immutable, unchangeable – ordained by God for all time. The problem, of course, is that God has to work thru human agents, who do the best they can to understand what God wants but are limited by knowledge, and what they “hear” is filtered through limits imposed by culture and language. So God as He is understood in one time and culture may be understood differently in another time and culture. More, now that we have so much more information about how life developed and how large, complex, and expanding the universe is – I think the ways we have understood God and His place in our lives and the purpose of humanity in an ongoing creation – have to be reexamined. I believe He is – but the ways we used to try to envision and decipher the Mystery that is God now show how limited our vision was.

    Here is something that is important to keep in mind. Religion helps us by providing some basis for searching for God, for some definition of what is good, right, honorable (even if the definitions are flawed), for finding how we can live together as human communities. So I think we need religion as a focus for that search, as a source for ideas of “good”, “true”. Religion helps teach us values, and is especially important for helping us keep in mind what those values are and keep us aware of incorporating those values in our daily lives.

    I think there is a dilemma here – can there be religion that is not dogmatic?

  26. You raise many interesting ideas.

    As to non-dogmatic religions….Unitarianism? Judaism? AFAIK neither has any creed. And does anyone know anything about moral precepts in Baha’i?

    My hunch is that dogmatism serves some very definite purpose, tho I have not thought about this enough, or read enough, to state what that might be. Off the top of my head…maybe eliminating ambiguity or anxiety among followers?

    I find it *extremely* interesting that the RCC and various Prot denominations start with the same text and so often come to very different conclusions (highly obvious one: artificial birth control). Protestantism, of course, believes “sola scripture”–“scripture only”–whereas the RCC invokes custom (or smething like that–maybe “context”?). My hunch is that the RCC believes that custom is necessary, because that helps advance some political agenda— maybe having to do with overall liberty? with sex? I would not yet want to state definitively what it is. But it certainly does look to me like it’s related to an agenda; the RCC has never understood the idea of “liberty” in the same way as (say) Protestantism, Judaism, or non-belief has understood it.

    It’s interesting as well that old ideas, typically very rigid and non-ambiguous, are changing. The most obvious one is about sex: looks to me like pre-marital/non-marital sex is today regarded (in large part) as a much less serious matter; similarly with oral/anal sex. And especially that’s true of homosexuality.

  27. Ad fontes. “[back] to the sources”, is a better characterization of the motto of Protestant Reformation, which called for renewed attention to the Bible as the primary source of Christian faith.

    Aggiornamento, “bringing up to date”, was one of the key words used on the Second Vatican Council.

  28. “Cordileone’s proposal leads directly to World War 3, because all the fake excuses would disappear. Catholicism would be ripped apart, & big stress for all of us.”

    Can you expand on how you think this war might play out, given the article previously on RNS about the high odds against formal schism?

  29. I’ve read , i.e. “updating”.

    It might be better termed “Aggravante” or “Lamentarsi”.

    It has literally nothing in common with the goals and documents of Vatican II, e.g.:

    It has taken to removing some of the more blatantly over-the-top posts denying the Virgin Birth and Holy Orders thanks to their being cited elsewhere, but one of its two founders no longer attends Mass and does ad hoc lay liturgies:

    That’s destruction, not updating.

  30. No, Fr. Reese says “theologians and gays” are not the problem. Father Curran and Harvey Milk did not molest any children; all too many bishops permitted children to be molested by their pedophile priests. As long as the hierarchy keeps stalling on the need for priestly and episcopal accountability for children’s privacy and safety, the watchdogs will keep on barking!

  31. 80+% of the abuse was male-on-male.

    No, Charles Curran no longer uses the title “Father”.

    And, no, you can’t attack one part of the seamless garment of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and claim a “get out of jail free” card for the consequences.

  32. Cordeleone is orthodox Catholic, which you interpret as “filled with hatred and untruth” since you are opposed to practically all of the Church’s teachings on human sexuality.

Leave a Comment