US Bishops Offer New Hope That Real Change May Be Coming

EDITORIAL: News from Baltimore, and Boston, reflects that, after many failures, missteps and delays, true accountability is on the horizon.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston (l) has followed the leadership of Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore (r) in bishop-accountability measures for his archdiocese.
Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston (l) has followed the leadership of Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore (r) in bishop-accountability measures for his archdiocese. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA; CNA/Courtesy of Patrick Novecosky-Legatus)
Just weeks after the Vatican’s February summit on clergy sexual abuse, which left U.S. Catholics frustrated by Rome’s measured response to holding bishops accountable for sexual misconduct with adults and negligent supervision of predatory clerics, news from the Baltimore Archdiocese brings a glimmer of hope.

Following a Vatican-authorized investigation into allegations of sexual harassment, two retired U.S. Church leaders — West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield and Bishop Gordon Bennett — faced restrictions on their public ministry. And though naysayers had questioned whether bishops had the stomach for investigating brother bishops, or whether claims of sexual harassment against them would be taken seriously by Church authorities, the actions coming out of the Baltimore Archdiocese suggest otherwise.

A striking feature of this new inflection point is the role played by Archbishop William Lori, who completed his mission in five months and then provided the public with information about the charges and the investigation — an unusual and welcome level of transparency.

Archbishop Lori took action after Bishop Bransfield reached his 75th birthday and tendered his resignation in September. At that time, the Holy See named Archbishop Lori the apostolic administrator of the West Virginia diocese and authorized him to conduct an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and financial improprieties against Bishop Bransfield.

Archbishop Lori tapped five lay experts to help with this work and contracted with an independent third-party reporting system founded in 2012, called EthicsPoint, to receive additional allegations against the accused.

The results of the investigation have been sent to Rome, and Pope Francis will make a final judgment. But when Archbishop Lori marked the completion of the preliminary investigation, he imposed immediate restrictions on Bishop Bransfield. “Pending the Holy See’s assessment of the findings,” read the statement, “Bishop Bransfield is not authorized to exercise any priestly or episcopal ministry either within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston or within the Archdiocese of Baltimore.”

It was also confirmed that Bishop Bennett, a Jesuit, faced similar action for allegations that apparently dated back to 2006 but were only now coming to light. “[A]s part of recently announced protocols governing the conduct of bishops in the archdiocese, Archbishop Lori determined that similar restrictions were warranted in the case of former Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore Gordon Bennett, S.J.,” read the announcement. “As a result of these restrictions, which the Holy See recently gave permission to the archbishop to announce, Bishop Bennett is prohibited from exercising any priestly or episcopal ministry in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.”

The statement noted that, in 2006, an allegation of harassment against the bishop that involved a young adult had been received by the archdiocese and was immediately forwarded to the nuncio. The bishop stepped down three months later. And though the Baltimore Archdiocese offered only a partial explanation for the delay in penalties, its announcement suggested that Church officials would now begin to take accusations of sexual harassment against bishops much more seriously. This, too, is a welcome development.

An auxiliary bishop in the Baltimore Archdiocese from 1998 to 2004, Bishop Bennett was subsequently appointed bishop of Mandeville, Jamaica. He remained in that post for two years.

At the time, unspecified health issues were offered as an explanation for his early retirement at the age of 60. But the Baltimore Archdiocese’s March 11 press release provided a very different explanation.

Bishop Bennett is a member of the Society of Jesus’ California province, now part of the Jesuits West Province, and he served from 2008 to 2018 at Loyola Marymount University. During his tenure there, he taught theology and led retreats, among other duties.

After Archbishop Lori’s announcement, Jesuits West issued a statement that sought to defend the actions of the Jesuit bishop’s religious superiors.

Jesuits West said the bishop had been cleared of the allegation in 2009, and the Congregation for Bishops had allowed him to return to “limited episcopal ministry subject to oversight.” But in August, Bishop Bennett’s case was “re-examined,” according to Jesuits West, and the Congregation for Bishops determined he “should not continue to exercise episcopal ministry.”

Archbishop Lori’s announcement made the Holy See’s judgment public. More importantly, the re-evaluation of Bishop Bennett’s case underscored the impact of the Theodore McCarrick scandal. The onetime cardinal and archbishop of Washington, D.C., was suspended from public ministry in June 2018, after an allegation of sexual abuse involving a minor was found to be credible. But the news quickly stirred criticism about the Vatican’s earlier failure to act after it received reports of his alleged sexual harassment and misconduct with adult seminarians.

Archbishop Lori’s actions adhered to the archdiocese’s new protocols for investigating allegations against a bishop that were unveiled in January.

The reforms authorize his Independent Review Board to investigate claims of sexual abuse, misconduct and negligence or cover-up against bishops of the archdiocese. Local bishops are also required to sign a “Code of Conduct,” which clearly prohibits misconduct involving adults.

The Baltimore Archdiocese uses EthicsPoint to receive claims and forward them to the relevant civil and Church authorities. Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, the president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, also announced this month that his archdiocese would use EthicsPoint to receive allegations against bishops in his archdiocese.

The news reassures the faithful that Church leaders understand the need for bishop accountability and transparency. But canonists have questioned how these new developments square with Church law governing the formal framework for investigating bishops and maintaining the rights of the accused.

Archbishop Lori “can restrict [Bishop Bransfield and Bishop Bennett] in certain ways, but I would question whether he can completely forbid them from exercising their episcopal ministry,” Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, a canonist at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, told the Register.

He noted that, for the present at least, the bishops only face restrictions within Baltimore and Wheeling-Charleston, “because that is the extent of Archbishop Lori’s power.”

The Baltimore Archdiocese’s spokesman, Sean Caine, defended Archbishop Lori’s actions: “Each diocesan bishop can decide which cleric (priest, deacon or bishop) can minister in his diocese,” he told the Register.

Canonists also sought more information about the precise role of an autonomous third-party reporting system like EthicsPoint. “A bishop cannot shed his responsibility,” said Dominican Father Joseph Fox, a canonist in Los Angeles. “He can get expert lay opinion, and he doesn’t have to oversee the investigation. But there needs to be a point at which it begins and when it concludes, and he has to decide.”

Cardinal O’Malley’s spokesman, Terrence Donilon, said the adoption of EthicsPoint accommodated Church law governing investigative procedures.

“The review board will forward to the nuncio reports from the two members who staff the anonymous reporting site,” said Donilon. “Once such a report is made, the archbishop will initiate the proper investigation when directed by the apostolic nuncio. This process provides for the archbishop to have the appropriate role in the formal canonical process once it is initiated.”

Donilon described the adoption of EthicsPoint as a “temporary and intermediate step that Cardinal Seán feels is necessary to implement now as decisions are made toward a more comprehensive metropolitan plan.”

There is a strong expectation that the U.S. bishops will adopt a more comprehensive and decisive response at their June meeting, when they are expected to act on proposals to strengthen bishop accountability, including an independent reporting system for claims and possibly a national board with the authority to conduct preliminary investigations.

But the news from Baltimore and Boston does, indeed, offer a little hope that, after many failures, missteps and delays, true accountability may be coming.