The Christmas season has been noticeably less joyous in the Catholic Church the past few years. Continued news about old abuse scandals, allegations of cover-ups, and egregious behavior by priests and bishops alike have pushed countless parishioners away during the happiest time of the year.
Yet now the faithful — and all who care about protecting children — have reason for renewed hope. The Church in the U.S. is taking greater steps toward accountability.
The election last month of Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is the most recent sign of hope. The U.S. bishops placed their trust in the first Latino to head the Church’s governing body in America in part because he has a track record of caring for the neglected and downtrodden, including abuse victims.
During his eight years in Los Angeles, Archbishop Gomez has earned high marks for his transparency in the handling of abuse allegations and implementing child-safety protocols. Last year, the archdiocese released the names of priests who were “plausibly” accused of abuse, whereas other dioceses only acknowledge “credible” allegations.
Also important: Instead of handling everything in-house, Archbishop Gomezhas coordinated with professional lay Catholics — non-priests and non-Church employees — whom he calls his “co-workers.”
As USCCB president, Archbishop Gomez will oversee the implementation of historic new accountability measures, the broad contours of which were passed by the USCCB in June. The final policies will fulfill Pope Francis’ call for the bishops of every country to design a “public, stable, and easily accessible” system for people to submit allegations of abuse or cover-ups by Catholic priests and bishops.
The first big test of this system in America will come in early 2020, when the USCCB unveils a new toll-free hotline and dedicated websites through which anyone can report an abuse-related crime or complaint. The USCCB will heavily publicize these new tools, for good reason. They will allow every allegation to be aired and heard. Nothing will be swept under the rug.
The USCCB is also advancing unprecedented measures to hold bishops accountable. Historically, these senior leaders have avoided meaningful oversight, a cause of much scandal and a source of profound distrust for those of us in the pews. No longer. For the first time, every allegation involving a bishop will be reported to Church authorities as well as lay leaders.
Lay Catholics will be involved in the reporting system in two ways. First, each of the Church’s 30-plus geographic areas in America will choose a lay leader to receive every complaint involving a bishop — with no exceptions. These individuals can release that information to the public, even if Church officials try to stop them. The USCCB is currently identifying the best people for these important jobs.
Second, the bishops in each region are identifying qualified lay leaders who will discern the credibility of allegations and recommend next steps. Crucially, the USCCB is taking steps to prevent conflicts of interest.
For example, a layperson appointed by a bishop cannot also participate in the investigation of that same bishop. Church authorities will be unable to stop the boards from fulfilling their duty.
Archbishop Gomez and his fellow bishops support this system because they’ve seen it work, albeit at a lower level.
In the wake of the Boston sex-abuse scandal in the early 2000s, the USCCB ordered every diocese to create local review boards, run primarily by lay Catholics, to investigate accusations against priests and create policies to prevent future abuse.
This system has contributed to the dramatic decline in priestly abuse of minors.
Last year, the local lay boards documented more than 860 credible allegations, yet only 5% occurred after the year 2000. Even one credible allegation is too many, and more lay oversight — especially for bishops — will continue to expose and expel the Church leaders who perpetrate such crimes and cover them up.
America’s bishops, led by Archbishop Gomez, are now holding themselves to a higher standard. Their actions herald a new — and long overdue — era of accountability, transparency and protection for children in the U.S. Catholic Church. Catholic or not, that’s something to celebrate this Christmas season.
Tim Busch is the founder of the Busch Firm in Irvine, California, and founder of the Napa Institute, a Catholic lay organization.