Investigations of Bishops Rise as McCarrick Scandal Reforms Kick In

Pope Francis’ document ‘Vos Estis’ and a national hotline have produced an uptick in claims against US bishops, but experts are waiting for hard data.

US Bishops Fall meeting in Baltimore, Md., 2019.
US Bishops Fall meeting in Baltimore, Md., 2019. (photo: CNA / EWTN)

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, Minnesota, on April 13, marking a new milestone in the Catholic Church’s global campaign to strengthen episcopal accountability in the wake of the McCarrick scandal.

The former Crookston bishop is the first U.S. Church leader to undergo an investigation pursuant to Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are the Light of the World), Pope Francis’ 2019 motu proprio, which holds bishops accountable for negligence in responding to allegations of sexual abuse involving minors and lays out universal procedures for investigating bishops accused of sexually abusing minors or vulnerable adults or of failing to remove others credibly accused. 

Ron Vasek, the man who told Church authorities he had been sexually abused by a local priest and that Bishop Hoeppner pressured him not to report it, applauded the conclusion of his yearslong campaign for justice. 

“Anyone who didn’t believe my story probably should believe it because Pope Francis believes it,” Vasek told the Register. 

Under the procedures stipulated by Vos Estis, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the local metropolitan, conducted preliminary and supplementary investigations, with the assistance of the archdiocese’s director of ministerial standards and safe environment. 

The inquiry examined whether Bishop Hoeppner “had intentionally interfered with or avoided a canonical or civil investigation of an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor,” and Vasek said he was pleased with Archbishop Hebda’s work. 

Terry McKiernan, president and co-director of Bishop Accountability, a website that tracks the cases of bishops and priests accused of abusing minors and cover-ups, agreed with Vasek. 

“It seems that Archbishop Hebda believes that transparency and accountability are important,” said McKiernan.


U.S. Investigations

But the archbishop’s central role “also points to a vulnerability of the Vos Estis process because it does depend on the metropolitans. Some will function well, like Hebda, but you have to wonder if we will always get good results,” he said, noting that some U.S. bishops had raised the same concern when they debated the best model for reforms designed to prevent another McCarrick.

In the past two years, Vos Estis investigations have been opened to address claims against Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York; Bishop Oscar Cantu of San Jose, California; Bishop John Brungardt of Dodge City, Kansas; and former Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, New York. 

At the same time, metropolitan archbishops have received an unspecified number of additional claims against bishops that are confidential and have been forwarded to the Vatican. 

“The third-party reporting system makes it easier to report claims” against bishops, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the Register, in a reference to Convercent, the third-party contractor that receives allegations in conjunction with the Catholic Bishop Abuse Reporting Service (CBAR) and is designed to segregate claims from the chancery, including anonymous reports. 

The new protocols for bishop accountability give significant authority to the local metropolitan, who receives the complaint and then informs the nuncio and the Vatican. The metropolitan, the archbishop who holds the chief episcopal see for an ecclesiastical province, then awaits approval for launching a preliminary investigation. If the metropolitan is the accused, the senior most bishop in the province will step in. Another bishop may also be asked to conduct an inquiry, and Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix is leading a preliminary investigation of Bishop Cantu, who faces claims dating to his time as the bishop of Las Cruces, New Mexico, though Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe serves as the local metropolitan. 

Canon lawyers and lay professionals with expertise in law enforcement and related fields also take part in any inquiry, and a comprehensive report is reviewed and forwarded by the metropolitan to Rome. Thus far, Archbishop Cordileone has received two complaints he said “were probably motivated by Vos Estis.” One addressed an issue “not covered” by the motu proprio; the other was sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops. 


Raising the Bar

Dominican Father Joseph Fox, the vicar of canonical services for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, told the Register that Vos Estis and the third-party reporting system have raised the bar for accountability, as allegations against bishops are now being received by multiple parties: the metropolitan, nuncio and third-party reporting system — and possibly others, as well. That shift has resulted in the filing of new claims, he noted, though he could not say how many. “Since the new measures have been implemented, the tendency is to take accusations [against bishops] more seriously,” Father Fox told the Register. 

“The nuncio and the metropolitan will not easily dismiss an accusation without an investigation.”

In recent years, he said, Church authorities have received additional allegations through the independent compensation boards set up by dioceses to promote healing and provide financial settlements to alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse in advance of state legislation lifting the statute of limitations in civil cases. 

The investigation into McCarrick’s history of sexual misconduct was triggered by a claim filed in 2017 with the New York Archdiocesan Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP).

Father John Paul Kimes, a canon lawyer at Notre Dame Law School who previously served at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told the Register that Vos Estis marked an important development, as it “makes clear the Church’s intention that accusations of such failures are now always subject to formal investigations and, if proven, to possible disciplinary action.”

Seminary Cases

As new Vos Estis investigations roll forward, canonists are waiting to see how the norms will apply in cases that address a bishop’s alleged failure to act on reports of sexual abuse and misconduct at seminaries. The McCarrick scandal exposed the vulnerability of young seminarians under pressure to engage in coercive sexual behavior initiated by a superior. 

Vos Estis recognizes as explicitly criminal the abuse of authority in coercive sexual relationships.

The motu proprio, in contrast to previous legislation, provides a new category of “vulnerable” adult that allows for other considerations beyond one’s capacity for reason. 

It defines a “vulnerable adult” as “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty, which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offense.” 

And while some experts say there is still some ambiguity on how this language will be applied in specific cases, Father Kimes said it was important to keep a larger point in mind. “Bishops are naturally responsible for failing to act” in such cases, he said. 

“We don’t need to classify seminarians as ‘vulnerable adults’ to see that this behavior is contrary to the very purpose of a seminary and that failing to act in the face of reports of such behavior is a severe case of negligence on the part of any bishop, who is primarily responsible for the education and formation of seminarians in his diocese.” 


Transparency Concerns

Father Kimes and other canonists told the Register that the full impact of Vos Estis has yet to be determined and will depend on the outcome of investigations already underway and others that have yet to be launched. 

At the same time, some expressed frustration with what they see as a persistent lack of transparency.

Father Gerald Murray, a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in Manhattan, raised questions about Vos Estis investigations that have ended with a bishop’s resignation rather than a Church trial, as in Bishop Hoeppner’s case.

“The resignation may achieve the same end as an ecclesiastical trial,” Father Murray told the Register. “But it short-circuits the recognition by the Church authority of the justice of the claims made by the victims” and also the recognition that the accused has “suffered a penal consequence for their canonical crimes.”

Echoing the views of other canonists, he also questioned why there appeared to be separate protocols for priests and bishops facing investigations. 

“When priests are accused, they step aside voluntarily or involuntarily,” noted Father Murray.

“That didn’t happen in the case of Bishop DiMarzio [who remains head of his diocese while awaiting the Vatican’s findings after an investigation into an abuse claim], but it did happen in the case of Bishop Brungardt, who has taken a leave of absence while denying the claim.” However, the practice for such cases “must not depend on what the accused wants,” said Father Murray. Experts also point to an apparent lack of transparency after a claim has been filed, as there is no requirement that Church authorities inform the accuser or the accused about an investigation. And some called for the U.S. bishops to make provisions for an annual audit that could independently evaluate the Church’s response. 


No Oversight Role

Indeed, when the Register asked the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for a list of prelates facing Vos Estis investigation, spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi clarified in an email message that “the Conference does not have an oversight role in this process. We have helped facilitate some of the infrastructure for the third-party reporting service that is now in place and at the service of the metropolitans, but the Conference’s role has been limited to that.”

The lack of hard data bothered Kathleen McChesney, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who established the USCCB’s Office of Child Protection and has received complaints from third-party reporting systems. “Who is really responsible for keeping the public or faith community abreast of how this is going?” asked McChesney, who described the present approach as “scattershot.”

The U.S. bishops will likely discuss the new accountability measures when they meet for their June meeting, though Noguchi could not confirm that. 

McChesney told the Register that they should develop plans to collect data on the number of complaints received and investigations launched, along with the status of those cases. “If I am administering this system,” she said, “I want to know if it is working and whether it could be better.” 


Calls for Patience

For now, however, those who say the reforms are working have called for patience — a virtue in short supply after the damage wreaked by McCarrick and other episcopal predators. 

“There is no guarantee” that every claim against a bishop will result in a case that makes headlines, said Father Fox, noting the need to balance transparency with confidentiality in the initial stages of any investigation. 

“But the investigations tell you the mechanism has been put in place and is being used. Sometimes it results in the verification of an accusation” and even “disciplinary measures.”

Added Father Fox, “If someone would make the claim the Vatican talks a good game but doesn’t back it up with action, the Minnesota case shows the Church is in fact pursuing these allegations.”