U.S. Catholic bish­ops con­vene to con­front sex­ual-abuse cri­sis

Use of lay ex­perts among pro­pos­als to be voted on


Bal­ti­more — The na­tion's Ro­man Catholic bish­ops con­vened a high­stakes meet­ing Tues­day un­der pres­sure to con­front the child sex­ual abuse cri­sis that has dis­il­lu­sioned many church­go­ers, with one scholar warn­ing: “We find our­selves at a turn­ing point, a critical mo­ment in our his­tory.”

How the bish­ops con­front the prob­lem “will de­ter­mine in many ways the fu­ture vi­brancy of the church and whether or not trust in your lead­er­ship can be re­stored,” Francesco Ce­sareo, an aca­demic who chairs a na­tional sex-abuse re­view board set up by the bish­ops, said as the four-day gath­er­ing be­gan.

Key pro­pos­als on the agenda call for com­pas­sion­ate pas­toral care for abuse vic­tims, a new abuse re­port­ing sys­tem, and a larger role for lay ex­perts in hold­ing bish­ops ac­count­able. Votes on the pro­pos­als are ex­pected to­day and Thurs­day.

The de­lib­er­a­tions will be guided by a new law that Pope Fran­cis is­sued on May 9. It re­quires priests and nuns world­wide to re­port sex­ual abuse, as well as cover-ups by their su­pe­ri­ors, to church author­i­ties.

Ad­vo­cates for abuse vic­tims have urged the U.S. bish­ops to go fur­ther by re­quir­ing that sus­pi­cions be re­ported to po­lice and pros­e­cu­tors, too.

Car­di­nal Daniel DiNardo, pres­i­dent of the bish­ops' con­fer­ence and head of the Galve­ston-Hous­ton Arch­dio­cese, said he is op­ti­mistic

ma­jor progress will be made this week. He com­mended the pope for lay­ing out some world­wide guide­lines for com­bat­ing abuse while giv­ing lee­way for the U.S. bish­ops to work out the de­tails.

Among the agenda items is a pro­posal to cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent, third-party en­tity that would re­view al­le­ga­tions of abuse. Ce­sareo said all abuse-re­lated al­le­ga­tions con­cern­ing bish­ops should be re­ported to civil author­i­ties first and then to a re­view board.

The bish­ops will also be vot­ing on a pro­posal to en­cour­age — but not re­quire — the in­volve­ment of lay ex­perts in han­dling sig­nif­i­cant abuse al­le­ga­tions.

Ce­sareo said that in­clud­ing the laity is critical if the bish­ops are to re­gain pub­lic trust. Oth­er­wise, he said, it’s es­sen­tially “bish­ops policing bish­ops.”

A na­tional sur­vey re­leased Tues­day by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter il­lus­trates the ex­tent of dis­en­chant­ment among U.S. Catholics. The March poll found about one­fourth of Catholics say­ing they had scaled back Mass at­ten­dance and re­duced do­na­tions be­cause of the abuse cri­sis, and only 36 per­cent said U.S. bish­ops had done a good or ex­cel­lent job in re­spond­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Ap­plied Re­search in the Apos­to­late, an au­thor­i­ta­tive source of Catholic-re­lated data, 45 per­cent of U.S. Catholics at­tended Mass at least once a month in 2018, down from 57 per­cent in 1990.

By the cen­ter’s es­ti­mates, there were 76.3 mil­lion Catholics in the U.S. last year, down from 81.2 mil­lion in 2005. The church re­mains the largest de­nom­i­na­tion in the U.S.

Events of the past year have posed un­prece­dented chal­lenges for the U.S. bish­ops. Many dio­ce­ses have be­come tar­gets of state in­ves­ti­ga­tions since a Penn­syl­va­nia grand jury in Au­gust de­tailed hun­dreds of cases of al­leged abuse.

In Fe­bru­ary, for­mer Car­di­nal Theodore McCar­rick of Washington was ex­pelled from the priest­hood for sex­u­ally abus­ing mi­nors and sem­i­nar­i­ans, and in­ves­ti­ga­tors are try­ing to de­ter­mine if se­nior Catholic of­fi­cials cov­ered up his trans­gres­sions.

Another in­ves­tiga­tive team re­cently con­cluded that Michael Brans­field, a for­mer bishop in West Vir­ginia, en­gaged in sex­ual ha­rass­ment and fi­nan­cial mis­con­duct over many years.

Even DiNardo, who heads the Galve­ston-Hous­ton Arch­dio­cese, has been en­tan­gled in con­tro­versy. Last week, The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported a Hous­ton woman’s claim that he mis­han­dled her al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual and fi­nan­cial mis­con­duct against his deputy.

The arch­dio­cese said it “cat­e­gor­i­cally re­jects” the story as bi­ased. How­ever, the arch­dio­cese later said it would re­view the mar­ried woman’s al­le­ga­tions that the deputy, Mon­signor Frank Rossi, con­tin­ued to hear her con­fes­sions after lur­ing her into a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship, a potentiall­y se­ri­ous crime un­der church law.

DiNardo, at a news con­fer­ence Tues­day, de­fended his ac­tions in Hous­ton and the bish­ops’ ef­forts to re­store cred­i­bil­ity.

“The Hous­ton sit­u­a­tion strikes me as very dis­tinc­tive. I have very in­tense dis­agree­ments with what has been pre­sented,” he said. “But from our own lo­cal church, I’ve tried to be very straight­for­ward with my peo­ple . ... We need to put to­gether, for lack of a very word, a pack­age — a whole way in which we deal with the is­sues of trans­parency.”

Catholic lead­ers ar­gue, with some sta­tis­ti­cal back­ing, that in­stances of clergy sex abuse have de­clined sharply with the adop­tion in 2002 of guide­lines for deal­ing with such cases.

“The Church is a far safer place to­day than when we launched the Char­ter,” DiNardo con­tended in a re­cent re­port. “Pro­grams of back­ground checks, safe en­vi­ron­ment train­ings, re­view boards en­forc­ing zero tol­er­ance poli­cies, and vic­tims as­sis­tance re­quire hun­dreds of ded­i­cated, pro­fes­sional teams with child safety as their high­est pri­or­ity.”

Co­in­ci­den­tally, the sec­ond-largest de­nom­i­na­tion in the U.S. — the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion — also opened its na­tional meet­ing on Tues­day, gath­er­ing in Birm­ing­ham, Ala., with an agenda sim­i­larly fo­cused on sex abuse. The SBC had 14.8 mil­lion mem­bers in 2018, down about 192,000 from the pre­vi­ous year.

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