Building on the Pope’s New Letter on Abuse Prevention

‘You Are the Light of the World’ to serve as starting point for U.S. bishops’ meeting.

(photo: Bohumil Petrik/CNA)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will soon have to grapple with the question of how to effectively implement Pope Francis’ new set of Vatican norms for the Church’s handling of sexual-abuse cases contained in his apostolic letter Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are the Light of the World).

Ahead of their June General Assembly, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the USCCB, appeared optimistic about using the motu proprio (a document issued of the pope’s own accord) as a basis to initiate new standards nationally.

Two U.S. bishops who spoke with the Register were similarly positive, but other Church leaders have voiced concerns that the document does not sufficiently involve the laity or contain enough checks and balances to prevent another situation like the scandal of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

In his document, issued May 9, Pope Francis canonically criminalizes the misuse of authority to coerce sexual activity with seminarians and religious, something that reportedly occurred in the case of McCarrick. The new norms place this sort of behavior in the same category as the abuse of minors and vulnerable persons.

The guidelines also mandate that clerics and religious report any abuse and that every diocese has a mechanism for reporting abuse.

And the Pope adopted the “metropolitan model” for investigating abuse claims against bishops, another issue that is central in McCarrick’s misconduct. Under that model, a metropolitan archbishop would investigate a suffragan bishop within his province and update the Holy See every 30 days on the investigation, which would conclude within 90 days unless an extension is granted. In the case of an allegation against a metropolitan archbishop himself, the motu proprio stipulates that it should be referred to the province’s senior suffragan bishop for investigation.

While the metropolitan archbishop is permitted to appoint qualified laypeople to assist in such an investigation, he would remain primarily in charge of the investigation.

In a May 9 statement, Cardinal DiNardo praised the document as calling for “the establishment of easily accessible reporting systems, clear standards for the pastoral support of victims and their families, timeliness and thoroughness of investigations, whistleblower protection for those making allegations, and active involvement of the laity.”

He also noted that the document “leaves latitude for national bishops’ conferences, such as the USCCB, to specify still more to account for their local circumstances.”

“For the Church in the United States, the task before us now is to establish whatever is necessary to ensure the effective implementation of the motu proprio,” Cardinal DiNardo stated. “Our committees have already begun the work of preparing implementation measures for deliberation at the USCCB Plenary Assembly in June.”


Bishop Paprocki

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, is also largely supportive of the motu proprio. The bishop, who is a doctor of canon law, told the Register that the metropolitan system “is using a position that already exists in canon law and is grounded in the tradition of the Church.”

He added that “in terms of the involvement of qualified laypersons, other experts, that could be done on a more local level.”

Bishop Paprocki pointed out that the new document “affirms many of the existing things that we already have” for the Church in the U.S., “such as our Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that we’ve had in place since 2002 and the ‘Essential Norms’ that go with that.”

Bishop Paprocki also noted that it “expands some other categories, for example, the new document refers not just to sexual abuse of minors but a new classification of vulnerable persons, and it also makes reference to the use of violence or other abuses of power to perform sexual acts. It also includes cover-up of such conduct, and then it specifically includes cardinals, bishops, other clerics.”

He said his biggest concern with the model, which he voiced at the bishops’ November meeting, was “the fact that former Cardinal McCarrick was a metropolitan,” which made him wonder, “Would this model work in a system where the accusation is brought against the metropolitan himself?”

Still, Bishop Paprocki concluded that “there are some safeguards that are in here that would prevent against any kind of a cover-up or undue pressure because it does provide, if the allegation is against the metropolitan, that it would go to the senior suffragan.”

He pointed out that there is also a mechanism for the metropolitan to recuse himself from an investigation if he thinks there is a conflict of interest and that it also allows for the Holy See to intervene and appoint someone other than the metropolitan in the investigation if deemed necessary.


Archbishop Cordileone

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the Register that after pondering the metropolitan model, he has concluded that it is “the better option” among the proposals considered because “it already is within our hierarchal structure of the Church; the metropolitan is entrusted with some role of oversight, in terms of what happens in his province.”

He said that while the metropolitan is answerable to the Pope, he acts as “sort of a safeguard to ensure things don’t go wrong throughout the province,” so “they can be entrusted with special investigations, as well.”

When asked about the model’s ability to address the sexual-abuse scandal of McCarrick, who was formerly a metropolitan, Archbishop Cordileone said he thought the new document could have helped to address that scandal, but acknowledged that “there’s always sensitivities and personalities involved.”

He contended that “the fact that we have some legislation on this now makes it more in the consciousness of people of the importance of acting on it.”

Archbishop Cordileone told the Register that he believed the U.S. bishops will likely address how to involve the laity more in abuse investigations at their upcoming meeting.

“The motu proprio is for the universal Church, so it has to be flexible enough to be adaptable to different cultural and political situations,” he pointed out, “but the U.S. bishops, we can ensure our own application of it, and in there use strong language urging the metropolitan to involve laypeople with expertise to conduct the investigation.”

He added that he was especially encouraged that the document “addressed the problem of abuse of authority” and provided “mechanisms for investigation of bishops who have been guilty of that themselves or have been negligent in carrying out their responsibilities.”


Lay-Involvement Concerns

Utilizing a metropolitan approach to investigate abuse allegations was first suggested to the U.S. bishops by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago during their fall assembly last November, immediately after it was announced that the Vatican had intervened to derail the USCCB’s plan to formulate their own new policies at that meeting.

The metropolitan model has prompted the criticism that it still relies on bishops to investigate other bishops and does not establish a sufficiently external investigation, such as the proposal of a lay independent commission to investigate the bishops that was proposed at the USCCB’s November meeting.

Francesco Cesareo, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board and president of Assumption College, told the Register that he is concerned that the motu proprio may “stifle” discussion of lay involvement at the USCCB meeting.

“It’s going to continue to be very difficult to convince the laity of the seriousness which the Church takes the response to this issue when you continue to have bishops policing bishops, and that’s really what the metropolitan option does,” he said. “We have to acknowledge that there is a culture among the episcopacy, and that culture is one that does not tend toward transparency but really seeks to have a deference toward their brother bishops.”

Cesareo said that there is still some room for the bishops to strengthen the laity’s role in such investigations, citing what Archbishop William Lori has done in Baltimore as an example, “where he has established an independent lay body that would simply be responsible for investigation of any allegations against the bishop.”

“If the language would allow for individual bishops to do so, that’s a step in the right direction,” he contended, “but that’s not going to be consistent across the board, which leads to potential problems.”

Cesareo did see some positive aspects to the document, such as its recognition that “power can be abused through the coercion of seminarians, nuns and subordinates” into sexual activity. He was also pleased with the document’s global acknowledgement of the abuse problem.

“It brings to light the fact that the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, the abuse of power by bishops and other authorities is not a problem that is limited to particular parts of the world,” he pointed out. “It’s not an American problem; it’s not a European problem — it’s a problem that the entire Church has to confront.”


Strengths and Drawbacks

Ben Nguyen, a canon lawyer and the chancellor for the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, told the Register that the metropolitan model has strengths such as “trying to work within a provincial structure that is already there, though it clearly expands the role of a metropolitan,” but its drawbacks include “expecting an archbishop investigator to have the final say on whether he himself has a conflict of interest.” He said that because the model “does not provide any sort of independent reporting mechanism,” its success will depend on the persons involved in carrying it out.

And like Cesareo, Nguyen regretted that the Pope’s document “misses an important opportunity to provide a good framework to explore issues of lay involvement,” saying that it “does not address the issue much at all, outside of the option for an ecclesiastical province to come up with a list of qualified laypersons that may be able to assist and to allow the archbishop to choose from that list or engage the help of other laypersons.”

He said that while turning investigations completely over to laypeople or lay boards “is outside the bounds of sound ecclesiology and our theological and canonical framework,” he argued that “other ways in which qualified laypersons can make the process more effective seriously need to be explored.”

Father John Lavers, who led a 2012 seminary investigation that found evidence of a homosexual network across several U.S. dioceses, called the new document “weak” and told the Register that the momentum for real change has been lost on the issue.

Following his 2012 investigation, Father Lavers proposed that the USCCB establish a “National Office of Standards” and a “National Register” that “would be populated by information gathered from dioceses, religious communities and seminaries that would be accessible to select individuals in positions of trust, leadership and authority within the Catholic Church of the United States.”

Father Lavers, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. John’s, Newfoundland, said that, before the Vatican’s insistence on the metropolitan model, the U.S. bishops “were truly looking at an independent authority outside of Church structure that could have the fullness of integrity and trust that, of course, the previous internal mechanisms just were not achieving.”


Moving Forward

Susan Timoney, an associate professor of practice pastoral studies at The Catholic University of America, is cautiously optimistic about the impact of the motu proprio in the U.S. setting.

She reflected that the Pope’s document “draws heavily both from statutes already in place in the U.S. and from recommendations made by bishops of the U.S., so, in one way, it would seem to support the U.S. bishops’ priorities.”

She noted the significance of the document requiring a report, if found to be substantive, to go both to the metropolitan and to the Holy See and also the “inclusion of spiritual assistance in addition to monetary and therapeutic assistance for victims and survivors.”

Timoney echoed the concerns of Cesareo and Nguyen that the document did not address sufficiently greater lay involvement. “There is such a lack of understanding of the nature of the Church and of the role of laypeople in the Church’s mission and ministry,” she said. “It is not the nature of the Church for laypeople to share in the governance of the office of the bishop. The exercise of co-responsibility needs to be developed, and a piece of that is holding our leaders accountable, and so this gives some avenues to make that more intentional.”

Timoney hopes the U.S bishops will travel further toward to the goal, beginning at their meeting next month in Baltimore.

“The metropolitan is required to appoint experts, and I think it is obvious that the kind of experts that these cases will need is exactly the kind of expertise laypeople can offer,” she said, adding, “I think we may need to offer some training for bishops and laity on the right exercise of this kind of involvement of the laity.”

Said Timoney, “It will be interesting to see how this is addressed by the U.S. bishops’ conference.”

Register staff writer Lauretta Brown is based in Washington.

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