Bishops to debate code of conduct
Conference scheduled in Baltimore next week
WASHINGTON — After months of outcry from American Catholics this year, demanding that bishops be held accountable for decades of child abuse by priests, the bishops will meet in person for the first time for a dayslong reckoning about how to address the crisis.
In a highly unusual move, the bishops will put aside almost everything else on their agenda for the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops next week in order to focus solely on rectifying their policies on abuse. The lead-
ers of all 196 U.S. archdioceses and dioceses are invited to attend the Baltimore event.
Many bishops and lay leaders hope that they will emerge from the meeting with sweeping new procedures in place, including a lay commission empowered to investigate abuse by bishops, a new code of conduct and a plan for bishops removed from office due to their handling of abuse.
“When we come out of the meeting and are able to communicate what will be different moving forward, it’s my hope that all those who’ve been asking for such concrete steps will recognize: The bishops heard us,” said Bishop Michael Burbidge, who leads Virginia’s Diocese of Arlington. “We hear what you said, and we share those concerns. And we’re doing something about it.”
That’s a lot to get done in one meeting. But before the work begins, they will devote almost an entire day of the three-day session in Baltimore purely to prayer.
“All prayer. No agenda items. It’s just a day of prayer from morning until night. I think that shows the importance, that we recognize that we need some divine assistance here,” Burbidge said.
The bishops have been a primary focus of Catholics’ anger this summer and fall, starting with the release of a major grand jury report in Pennsylvania in August. That report, which probed seven decades of church history and found more than 300 priests had abused more than 1,000 children, drew attention to the conduct of bishops in the state’s Catholic dioceses, who sometimes moved an abusive priest to another parish or let him return to his ministry rather than removing him or reporting him to police.
In Pennsylvania, bishops’ names have been stripped from buildings and rooms that once honored them. Many of those bishops are deceased or retired, but not all. The current bishop of Pittsburgh, David Zubik, was involved in church administration since the late 1980s and has faced calls for his resignation since the grand jury report.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, whose actions during his 18 years as bishop of Pittsburgh were scrutinized closely in the grand jury report, was the archbishop of Washington when the report came out. After months of furious pressure from parishioners and highly involved Catholics in D.C. and Maryland, Wuerl retired due to the condemnation of his conduct. (He remains the acting administrator of the Archdiocese of Washington until Pope Francis selects his successor.)
Across the country, as more than a dozen states and a U.S. attorney have followed Pennsylvania’s lead and opened criminal or civil investigations into the Catholic church since August, concerned Catholics have focused their attention on the conduct of bishops. Many have called for increased participation of lay leaders to oversee the bishops’ conduct. Some have raised the question of mass resignation of some of the longest-serving bishops, who have led the church since long before the U.S. dioceses reformed their policies for handling abuse of children, in light of the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposé of the widespread crimes. In response to these calls for the reform, the bishops will consider three new policies at their meeting in Baltimore.
First, they will debate whether to create a new commission of lay people to investigate complaints against bishops. The U.S. bishops already have committed to hiring an outside vendor to run a hotline for reporting abuse, or mishandling of an abuse case, committed by bishops. If the bishops create this lay commission, the hotline also could funnel reports to the commission, which would make recommendations for disciplining bishops when necessary, to the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, who will refer the complaints to the bishops’ supervisors in Rome.
Second, the bishops will consider a draft which would create a new code of conduct for bishops, who currently don’t have a written framework of professional ethics. The new standards of conduct could cover sexual relationships with adults and other questions of abuse of power.
This proposal is likely to provoke the most controversy among the bishops. “I think the whole thing of a code of conduct for the bishops to me is unnecessary. We have a code of conduct — it’s called the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s called living a good, holy life,” said Bishop Christopher Coyne of Vermont’s Diocese of Burlington.
After a moment of reflection, Coyne modified his view. “I wish it wasn’t necessary, but it is. Given what has happened in the past and has happened currently, it is.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, then archbishop of Washington, D.C., speaks about his career in March. He has since retired after condemnation over his handling of abuse allegations while he was bishop of Pittsburgh.