'Cupich Plan' for Investigating Bishops Accused of Sex Abuse Faces Rough Road

Critics say focus on metropolitan bishops is flawed, won’t restore public confidence.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago speaks at the Vatican Press Office Feb. 18. He spoke about bishop accountability, proposing a plan of action, during the Feb. 21-24 summit in Rome.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago speaks at the Vatican Press Office Feb. 18. He spoke about bishop accountability, proposing a plan of action, during the Feb. 21-24 summit in Rome. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

WASHINGTON — Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago received a respectful hearing from Church leaders at the Vatican summit as he outlined his updated plan for deploying metropolitan bishops to investigate bishops accused of sexual abuse and negligence.

Back home, however, there are strong indications that his proposal faces a hard sell, as Church leaders and lay experts weigh reforms designed to restore the bishops’ credibility in the wake of the McCarrick scandal.

“There are still questions about ‘who knew what’ regarding McCarrick,” Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, told the Register.

“And now there is simply a lack of trust about a system involving metropolitans.”

Bishop Paprocki, a canon lawyer, expressed his preference for another proposal before the consideration of the U.S. bishops that was tabled until the completion of the summit: an independent national commission presented at the USCCB meeting in November. 

“I am in favor of a national commission that would be consistent” in its approach to allegations against bishops, he said.

Francesco Cesareo, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board and the president of Assumption College, was equally skeptical about a plan he described as “bishops policing bishops.”

“What confidence do we have that this proposal, even if it is obligatory, will be effective?” asked Cesareo, who also cited McCarrick’s role as a metropolitan.

“My concern is that it will try to signal a change, but, operationally, it will not be a change.”

Interview requests for Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, went unreturned. The Register was unable to secure an interview with Cardinal Cupich at press time.

Cardinal Cupich first introduced his plan during the U.S. bishops’ November 2018 meeting in Baltimore, where Church leaders were under enormous pressure to approve reforms to address systemic problems exposed by McCarrick’s unchecked misconduct and rise within the Catholic hierarchy. But the Vatican ordered the bishops to delay any action until after the February summit.

At the time, Cardinal Cupich underscored the particular strengths of his proposal, which would use the Church’s current ecclesiastical structure to improve bishop accountability.

A metropolitan archbishop is designated by the Pope and heads an ecclesiastical province, which is composed of several neighboring dioceses. The other dioceses in the province are headed by suffragan bishops, and the longest serving of this group is the senior suffragan (subordinate) bishop.

Cardinal Cupich proposed that the metropolitan archbishop oversee an investigation of an accused suffragan bishop, while the actual investigative work would be conducted by one or more established lay review boards — possibly one based in the metropolitan’s own archdiocese and the other in the diocese of the accused.

Canon 436 of the Code of Canon Law already authorizes the metropolitan archbishop to make sure “faith and ecclesiastical discipline are carefully observed and to notify the Roman pontiff if there are any abuses.”

If the metropolitan archbishop himself faced accusations, according to Cardinal Cupich’s plan, the senior suffragan bishop or the metropolitan from a neighboring province would oversee an inquiry.


Summit Comments

These features were discussed at Cardinal Cupich’s high-profile address during the Vatican summit in February. Pope Francis named Cardinal Cupich to the organizing committee in November 2018. At the U.S. bishops’ fall gathering earlier that month, the cardinal faced criticism that he subverted the U.S. bishops’ proposals to deal with abusive bishops by discussing alternatives with Vatican officials in advance. He denied the claims.

“We must move to establish robust laws and structures regarding the accountability of bishops precisely to supply with a new soul the institutional reality of the Church’s discipline on sexual abuse," he said.

He is working on a framework that could be applied to dioceses across the globe and highlighted the strengths of his proposal at a Vatican news conference.

The metropolitan model offers a regional response that would be more accessible to victims, he suggested, while emphasizing that the participation of an accused bishop would be obligatory.

There would be a toll-free number or website for reporting bishops and moneys allocated for investigations — features also included in an alternative proposal that would establish a national commission to receive claims and conduct preliminary investigations.

Seeking to assuage doubts about his approach, he contended that the involvement of lay experts and review boards would secure accountability and transparency.

While some bishops are still on the fence about the best path for promoting accountability, there is a grim recognition that the optics of the metropolitan model are not especially good.

“The danger is that it could give the appearance that we are still not getting out of the cultural problem of the ‘old boys’ network,” Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens of St. Paul and Minneapolis told the Register. “That is what we are trying to break out of.”

But Bishop Cozzens was still impressed with the particular advantages of this metropolitan plan.

“You don’t have to create a new structure and all the expense that goes with it,” he said.

“We could start with what can be accomplished right now and see how it works.”

In fact, the mechanics of a metropolitan receiving claims against a bishop and of conducting a preliminary investigation of the claims could be similar to established protocols in U.S. dioceses for dealing with allegations that involve the sexual abuse of minors by clergy.


Pope-Driven Process

The sticking point is that the Roman pontiff alone holds the authority for investigating and imposing penalties on bishops. Thus the Vatican would have to be intimately engaged in every step of this process, say Church leaders and analysts.

“The Holy Father can delegate to others to carry out the investigation, but it is a bishop’s right to be judged by the Holy See,” said Bishop Paprocki.

Lay Catholics often view the metropolitan as the “supervisor” of bishops in his province, but that is not the case, he said.

“Every bishop is the vicar of Christ, and, in that sense, our accountability is to the See of Peter.

“Even the nuncio has been making it clear that he sees himself as a conduit of information. He is not the bishop’s supervisor,” said Bishop Paprocki.

If the metropolitan plan was adopted in the U.S., the papal nuncio would be immediately informed when an accusation against a bishop was received.

But while the general outlines of the proposal are well understood, some issues must still be hashed out, and that could expose divisions among the U.S. bishops and between the episcopal conference and Rome.

One thorny problem is the precise role and responsibility of lay experts and review boards: Most likely, their participation will be limited to gathering evidence.

“There is more consensus that laypeople have to be involved,” agreed Bishop Paprocki, but how that will happen is still under review.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, a canon lawyer who supports the metropolitan plan, told the Register that particular law could be approved to secure the framework for “a provincial review board that would handle accusations against a bishop of the province.”

“Once the claim against the bishop was received, the metropolitan or the head of the review board would convene the board to assess the allegation,” he suggested.

Likewise, particular law could “give the metropolitan the faculty to conduct the initial investigation in cooperation with the review board.”

The Vatican is expected to provide some clarity on the role of lay specialists in the weeks and months ahead.

“There is no [clearly] identified lay role in the routine investigation of bishops who are accused,” said Karlijn Demasure, the former executive director of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Another issue that will stir debate is the kind of allegations to be handled under the metropolitan model and whether claims of sexual misconduct involving adults should also be included.

Elements of the Cardinal Cupich plan are inspired by the Dallas Charter protocols, which dramatically strengthened the U.S. bishops’ response to allegations that involved the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults. But the charter did not address bishop accountability or additional issues raised by the McCarrick scandal, such as sexual misconduct involving seminarians.

Archbishop Cordileone said the allegations to be received and investigated “should be defined in law.” And he said they must include “sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults, cover-up of the same, and predatory sexual behavior” involving adults.

Demasure echoed this point and said the Church “must expand its understanding of ‘vulnerable adults’ in order to include those who are ‘subjects of the power’ of bishops and other clerics,” such as seminarians, church employees, and religious women and men.

Once this change is made, she said, “the Vatican would then be able to investigate the abuses in seminaries, etc. as sexual abuse.” Further, the claims of seminarians and other adults could be handled in the same way that U.S. dioceses now respond to accusations that involve minors.

The credibility of any bishop-accountability model will also depend on setting and meeting specific goals, say experts.

“Time limits for investigations would be very important in order that a process, once begun, will not be buried on a desk, with the excuse that we have a lot of cases,” Father Gerald Murray, a New York priest and canon lawyer, told the Register, as he discussed his concerns about the metropolitan plan.

Victims’ advocates are also demanding more transparency about the status of investigations and penal proceedings.

There are discussions about “reviewing the ‘justice/appropriateness’ of the pontifical secret,” said Demasure, referring to the Holy See’s rule that strictly protects sensitive information about the governance of the universal Church, including sexual-abuse cases handled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Most civil jurisdictions see the need for confidentiality,” said Demasure.

“The notion of ‘secrecy,’ though, evokes cover-up. This point was evident in the Vatican summit’s discussions last week.” 

The National Review Board’s Cesareo also noted the importance of tracking the progress of individual cases, and he said that feature had been included in the bishops’ alternative plan for an independent national commission to receive claims against bishops.

In theory, at least, the same tracking system could apply to cases forwarded by metropolitan bishops. But it is not clear what form that reporting process might take or if Pope Francis would agree to it.


The Road Ahead

With so many questions unresolved, the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Review Board are engaged in an intensive review of all the proposed reforms. And they could still be revised before they are debated and put to a vote at the bishops’ June meeting.

The primary mission, said Bishop Paprocki, is to craft the best approach for holding the bishops accountable in this country.

“I don’t think the USCCB is trying to design something that would be universal,” he said, adding that “every country has to deal with this according to its own resources and cultural expectations. That was communicated at the Vatican meeting.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.

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