Is Bishop Accountability Working for the Catholic Church?

With ‘Vos Estis Lux Mundi,’ the Vatican’s norms in place to investigate bishops accused of sexual abuse or negligence, set to expire in May, experts want the Vatican to make them permanent.

Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are shown gathering for their fall meeting in Baltimore on Nov. 11, 2019.
Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are shown gathering for their fall meeting in Baltimore on Nov. 11, 2019. (photo: Christine Rousselle / CNA)

SPOKANE, Wash. — Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, was a San Francisco priest assigned to Marin Catholic High School when the Vatican approved the 2002 Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, including a new “zero-tolerance” policy mandating the removal of  priests facing “credible” accusations of abuse.

For Bishop Daly, ordained in 1987 and appointed the bishop of Spokane in 2015, much of his ministry has been shaped and shadowed by the shocking revelations of clerical predation and episcopal cover-up that ignited the 2002 clergy-abuse crisis.

“My years as a high-school administrator taught me the importance of having procedures in place to protect young people,” Bishop Daly told the Register, noting that those lessons were reinforced when he served on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children & Young People

But after searing revelations of episcopal abuse brought down disgraced former-cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2018, a campaign to strengthen bishop accountability shifted to center stage. 

In 2019, Pope Francis issued Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are the Light of the World),  his motu proprio that set up norms for investigating bishops accused of sexual abuse or negligence, among other provisions, while the U.S. bishops green-lighted the creation of an independent third-party reporting system that receives allegations against bishops without the threat of interference from the local chancery.   

Bishop Daly was among a number of U.S. Church leaders who worried about whether the faithful would view the new framework as both effective and credible. 

“My concern initially was that you have to involve laypeople with a level of competency in law enforcement,” he said. “Because even if a metropolitan archbishop is well-intentioned, some of the public will still see the ‘old-boys’ club” at work — a concern he deemed to be reasonable, given the recent scandals.


Five Bishops

Since 2019, five U.S. bishops are known to have been the subject of Vos Estis investigations, which initially establishes whether the allegations are “manifestly unfounded.” They are generally led by the local metropolitan archbishop, and the Vatican may request a “supplemental” inquiry, if necessary. 

Last year, the Vatican opened Vos Estis investigations of Bishop John Brungardt of Dodge City, Kansas, who stepped aside in February 2021, after the Kansas Bureau of Investigation announced it was looking into an allegation of  child sexual abuse against him and Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard of Albany, New York, also accused of molesting a minor in a civil case that was filed under New York’s Child Victims Act, which set up a one-year window for clergy-abuse lawsuits in cases where the statute of limitations had expired. 

Both bishops have denied the allegations.    

Meanwhile, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York, was cleared last year of accusations that he sexually abused a minor during his time as a priest in Jersey City, New Jersey. New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan oversaw that investigation, and he tapped “outside professional forensic investigators” to assist with this work.

And in April 2021, Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, Minnesota, resigned following initial and supplementary Vos Estis investigations conducted by Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who relied on the assistance of the archdiocese’s director of ministerial standards and safe environment.

The first U.S. prelate to face an investigation under Vos Estis norms, Bishop Hoeppner was accused of pressuring an alleged victim to drop his claim of abuse against a priest, failing to follow mandatory reporting laws, and neglecting to comply with protocols designed to monitor priests accused of misconduct.

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, told the Register last year that he was pleased with Archbishop Hebda’s work.  


Unresolved Status

Bishop Daly agreed that the results boosted his confidence in the “effectiveness” of the Vos Estis provisions. 

But the Spokane bishop remains perplexed by the unresolved status of another Vos Estis investigation involving Bishop Oscar Cantu of San Jose, California, who has been accused of mishandling abuse and misconduct cases while serving in his previous post as bishop of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Back in November 2020, Catholic News Agency reported that Bishop Cantu was the subject of a Vos Estis investigation and that Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix had been tapped to conduct it. Yet more than a year after that CNA report, there still is no word on the investigation’s outcome. 

Bishop Daly, who previously served as an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of San Jose, said he had no information to offer when laypeople privately raised the matter with him or asked why Bishop Olmsted had been asked to conduct the initial investigation rather than Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the local metropolitan overseeing the Diocese of Las Cruces.

 The Register asked the Archdiocese of Santa Fe for clarification but did not hear back.

 The Register also reached out to the Diocese of San Jose for comment. “To date, Bishop Cantu has cooperated fully in the investigation authorized by the Holy See and awaits its instruction regarding next steps,” said San Jose spokeswoman Cynthia Shaw in an email message.

For now, the vacuum of information points to the complex interplay of confidentiality, an essential part of any investigative framework, and the faithful’s demand for greater accountability. 

How do you “protect a man’s integrity, his reputation and, at the same time, make it clear that there was an allegation; it was investigated; this is the team that did the investigation?” asked Bishop Daly. “I do think people would welcome” that clarity. 

Without that explicit information, he suggested, there is a tendency for the public to conclude that the “subject of the investigation is guilty, but he beat the rap.” 


More Transparency

Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, adjunct professor of canon law at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception (Dominican House of Studies) in Washington, D.C., offered more pointed comments on the need for greater transparency from the Vatican on whether and how Vos Estis has made bishops more accountable for their misconduct and negligence.

Vos Estis expires later this year, and there has not been any indication from the Holy See on what it plans to do,” Father Pietrzyk told the Register. “I would hope that they are in the midst of a comprehensive examination. Just as importantly, I hope that they release publicly the results of any evaluation of the process.”

Church officials and experts contacted by the Register generally expressed strong support for the Vos Estis investigation of Bishop Hoeppner in Crookston and a desire to see Vos Estis norms made permanent. But they also noted a number of concerns about the process itself, and their input will likely receive more attention before the norms are due to expire in May.

“Archbishop Hebda engaged the services of professionals who have a background in running investigations, who were experienced in how the Church functions and in the unique environment of the Church’s structure, and so they were well prepared to enter into the situation in Crookston,” said Susan Mulheron, chancellor for canonical affairs in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. 


Significant Challenges

Still, Mulheron acknowledged that Vos Estis investigations pose significant challenges and constraints for a metropolitan archbishop, who possesses far more leeway when investigating allegations against his own priests.

While the metropolitan “is being charged by the Holy See to carry out an investigation, it is not his investigation; it belongs to the Holy See,” she told the Register. 

Rome “provides direction on the scope of the investigation, on what can be said publicly, and what happens once the investigation is concluded.”

When the inquiry is completed, Mulheron said, the metropolitan “makes a recommendation, but his authority ends there.”

In the case of Bishop Hoeppner, she said, “the Holy Father asked for his resignation, and it was received, but no other information was given about the reasons for that.” 

Mulheron speculated that, in a case like Bishop Hoeppner’s, the Holy See may have concluded that the bishop should leave office for the good of the diocese. Yet Church officials may be “reluctant to offer specifics” because “there hasn’t been a canonical trial that creates a defense and a determination of truth.” 

Asked whether she saw a need to modify Vos Estis, Mulheron endorsed the motu proprio as “a great addition to the legal framework of the Church,” while identifying several areas for review. 

“The sexual abuse of minors is criminalized in the Code of Canon Law, when committed by priests, members of religious orders, and members of the laity holding certain offices in the Church,” she noted. “Vos Estis should be updated to require the mandatory reporting of laypeople holding specific offices in the Church.”


Mandatory Reporting

Victoria Newcome Johnson, ombudsman for clerical sexual-abuse claims in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, told the Register that she was pleased with Archbishop Hebda’s handling of Bishop Hoeppner’s investigation. But she was not entirely satisfied with the Vos Estis process, which allows bishops to remain in ministry during the investigation, particularly if the charges do not involve abuse of minors. The Dallas Charter requires accused priests to be suspended from public ministry until an investigation determines whether the claims against them are credible. 

“Bishops should be held to at least the same standard as priests in regards to stepping aside when an investigation commences,” said Johnson, echoing a complaint raised by other experts contacted by the Register.  

But while pushing for the Vatican to provide more details on investigations, Johnson endorsed Vos Estis as a major breakthrough in the Church’s “global system for bishop accountability.” 

Dominican Father Joseph Fox, vicar of canonical services at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, pressed for legislation making Vos Estis norms permanent and told the Register that financial fraud should be added to crimes involving the abuse of office.

Asked to comment on the delays in the completion of Vos Estis investigations, Father Fox suggested that some cases are held up because the Holy See may be awaiting the outcome of a criminal proceeding or a civil trial before moving on with its own work. Likewise, Vatican officials may be undecided on how to proceed with a case, or face backlogs created by the pandemic. 


Additional Clarity

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who has received and forwarded allegations against bishops and noted some confusion over claims covered by Vos Estis, provided additional clarity on the timeline for the investigation. Likewise, he discussed the practical workings of the third-party reporting system used by dioceses across the country to provide an additional avenue for victims, who may fear retaliation by Church officials if they report misconduct. 

Allegations that are covered under Vos Estis, and are provided to the metropolitan directly or through the third-party reporting system, are forwarded to Rome, he noted.

After a metropolitan is commissioned to conduct the preliminary investigation and he concludes that the claim does not violate Vos Estis, Archbishop Cordileone told the Register, the accused and the accuser would both be informed, and the process of resolving and closing the case should happen fairly promptly. But if the Vatican moves forward with a full investigation, it could take longer than a year, he said.

Asked if the U.S. bishops might still push for previously discarded accountability proposals, such as a national tribunal for accused bishops, Archbishop Cordileone told the Register that the Vatican was unlikely to mandate that option for the universal Church, though it might “entertain a request by a [national] bishops’ conference to set that up.” 

Still, he questioned whether there was a need for a national tribunal for accused prelates. 

“Only the Holy See can judge a bishop, and they could always commission a tribunal in the country [of origin] to conduct the trial,” he said. “But I don’t think there is any need for a standing tribunal.”

Bishop Daly, for his part, has no direct experience with Vos Estis investigations. But he will continue to sift through the information that has been provided on the workings of the new norms, while focusing on his primary responsibilities as a Catholic shepherd, guarding his flock and resisting the temptation of complacency.

The abuse crisis has forced “both priests and bishops to realize that they are as susceptible to failure as anybody else,” Bishop Daly concluded, as he pondered the tragedy of leadership that brought down cardinals and bishops who failed to protect the most vulnerable. “The abuse crisis has taught us that holiness is a day-to-day effort.” No one, he said, is “above moral failure.”

This story is part of a series of Register articles and columns marking 20 years since the 2002 revelations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. This story was updated after posting.