Sex-Abuse Crisis: Bishops Press Forward With Own Reforms

A number of U.S. dioceses have already announced new initiatives to deal with the crisis, ahead of this month’s global summit on clerical sexual abuse at the Vatican.

St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson, shown speaking at at 2017 news conference, has asked a group of retired FBI agents to do their own assessment of the archdiocese’s procedures on how complaints of sexual abuse are handled and how children are protected.
St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson, shown speaking at at 2017 news conference, has asked a group of retired FBI agents to do their own assessment of the archdiocese’s procedures on how complaints of sexual abuse are handled and how children are protected. (photo: AP photo/Jim Salte)

While the hands of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops may have been tied until the Vatican conference on clerical sex abuse later this month, many individual bishops aren’t waiting to usher in sweeping new reforms in their dioceses in the wake of the latest revelations.

“I believe that bishops have sufficient latitude to implement reforms in their dioceses,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore told the Register. “As I understand it, canon law affords bishops authority to make certain decisions for the good of the local Churches they serve. In view of the importance of transparency and accountability, it was determined that these additional protocols were warranted and within my authority to implement.”

In mid-January, Archbishop Lori announced a third-party reporting system for accusations of any improprieties, criminal actions or unethical behavior — sex abuse or otherwise — for any bishops actively serving in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Any allegations will be assessed by an independent review board headed up by two retired judges. The board will also be publishing an annual report on how the archdiocese has dealt with the allegations it has received.

Archbishop Lori also mandated that any actively serving bishops sign the same “Code of Conduct” that priests, employees and volunteers do.

“During my more than a dozen listening sessions across the archdiocese, the faithful who have been deeply affected by this crisis made it abundantly clear that they expect a new level of transparency and accountability. This is what we have implemented, for priests, deacons, employees, volunteers and now bishops. As appointed shepherds of the Church, bishops must be held to the same standards of accountability — if not more,” Archbishop Lori told the Register.

Transparency has also been the touchstone of reforms implemented by Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis.

In early December Archbishop Carlson sent a letter to all 175,000 homes in the archdiocese that included the address for a section on the archdiocesan website where all archdiocesan policies on sex-abuse allegations are posted ( Archbishop Carlson invited local Catholics to review the documents and send his office suggestions for anything they thought needed to be added.

Archbishop Carlson has also asked the state attorney general to review all of the archdiocese’s relevant policies and procedures, promising to grant them unfettered access. Archbishop Carlson told the Register he had done the same thing when he was bishop of Sioux Falls in South Dakota after the 2002 sex-abuse crisis.

After the attorney general’s review, Archbishop Carlson has also asked a group of retired FBI agents to do their own assessment of the archdiocese’s procedures on how complaints are handled and how children are protected.

In addition, Archbishop Carlson’s staff has been compiling a public list of priests against whom “credible and substantiated” allegations had occurred before 2002. (There have been no allegations since then, Archbishop Carlson said.)

Archbishop Carlson’s actions are aimed at reassuring the public. “I think people have to believe that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” Archbishop Carlson said in an interview with the Register.

Archbishop Carlson said he is not aware of anything he can’t do now because he is waiting on the Vatican to act. “I don’t really think so, but I don’t know what the Vatican’s going to come up with,” Archbishop Carlson said.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis is now working with the attorney general on the review process.

As of this writing, however, the list of accused priests had yet to be released. An archdiocesan spokesman said the list is being screened by a former FBI agent to ensure its accuracy.


Other Initiatives

A number of other bishops across the country are also taking the initiative to implement additional reforms.

In mid-December, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis announced he was creating a new position to make sure the “voice of survivors of clergy sexual abuse will be regularly heard within archdiocesan leadership,” was waiving any confidentiality provisions survivors had made in previous settlement agreements, and would be available to meet with survivors Friday afternoons in February, March and April.

Also in mid-December, Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford, Connecticut, released a statement saying that the archdiocese would be publishing the names of any local clergy who had been the object of lawsuits or settlements or who had been otherwise credibly accused.

He said the archdiocese would also be contracting with a third party to review all of its personnel files to add any names to that list. In addition, the archdiocese had plans to make public how much money had been spent as a result of the sex-abuse crisis and what had been the source of those funds. (The list has since been made public and includes financial information; it is available online at

More recently, at the end of January, 14 dioceses in Texas published the names of 286 priests who had been accused of sexual abuse against minors, according to an Associated Press report.


Lay Perspectives

Catholic lay leaders interviewed by the Register agree that bishops should be pursuing reforms now.

“The local bishop can and should take all actions necessary without any input or permission from the USCCB or the Vatican,” said Jennifer Roback Morse, the founder and president of the Ruth Institute. She said bishops should do everything they can to deal with problematic priests, including removing them from ministry, refusing to provide letters of good standing that would allow them to serve elsewhere, and notify authorities of any illegal acts.

“These are all things that every bishop should already be doing. They don’t need any new policies or permissions or anything else. Bishops who are themselves guilty of sexual abuse should publicly repent, turn themselves in to the civil authorities, and resign their offices,” Morse said.

Philip Gray, the president of Catholics United for the Faith and the St. Joseph Foundation, agreed that bishops do not have to wait for the USCCB or the Vatican to act. “I don’t believe the bishops need any more tools,” said Gray, a canon lawyer.

He said the bishops were given additional tools after the 2002 sex-abuse crisis — tools that they have not been using. “I believe the best thing Rome could do is come down hard on the bishops for not being faithful,” Gray said.

Even when it comes to their fellow bishops, diocesan bishops have the ability to act on allegations. Gray said they could open investigations and forward the results to the Pope with recommendations of their own.

In the meantime, a diocesan bishop could remove an auxiliary bishop from a diocesan office and could bar a fellow bishop facing credible allegations from celebrating Mass on diocesan property or wearing pontifical vestments, according to Gray.


‘United and Transformative Witness’

Many U.S. bishops are hoping that their local efforts will be considered by the Vatican at the meeting set for Feb. 21-24. In a letter publicized on Nov. 12, Missouri’s bishops presented their own recommendations for reform, which included third-party reporting for complaints against bishops, restrictions on bishops who have left office because of allegations, and a full investigation into Archbishop Theodore McCarrick with lay involvement. Archbishop Carlson said he is hopeful that the Vatican will take these proposals seriously.

Archbishop Lori is also hoping that his local initiatives could be used as a model for broader reform.

“I am praying that this meeting will result in an overall acceptance of certain principles that can be implemented around the world, including zero tolerance for sexual abuse, care for victim-survivors, accountability for perpetrators, transparency on the part of the Church and accountability for the way Church authorities handle allegations of sexual abuse,” he said.

“I am also hoping there will be sufficient leeway for the Church in the United States to refine and enact measures not unlike those that were proposed at our meeting in November,” Archbishop Lori added, referencing the measures proposed by the USCCB leadership that had to be shelved after a last-minute Vatican intervention. “The integrity of the Church’s identity and mission demands bold action and a united and transformative witness.”

Stephen Beale writes from

Providence, Rhode Island.