Who Will Guard the Guardians of the Church?

Bishops, clergy and laity call for independent lay panels to investigate McCarrick and #MeToo sexual abuse.

Righteous anger over the latest abuse scandal is prompting a call to arms among the faithful and clergy.
Righteous anger over the latest abuse scandal is prompting a call to arms among the faithful and clergy. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

WASHINGTON — Amid the raw anger over the cover-ups for ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s alleged sexual abuse, bishops and lay faithful are calling for independent investigations, saying the credibility of the U.S. episcopate has been shattered.

Both clergy and lay leaders are calling for laypeople, independent of the Church’s structure, to be empowered to help root out corruption  within the Church and ferret out all clerical sex abusers and their enablers.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston-Galveston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued an Aug. 1 statement in response to the uproar, agreeing the failures to stop Archbishop McCarrick raised “serious questions.”

He said the USCCB’s executive committee would present proposals at the U.S. bishops’ November General Assembly in Baltimore to “pursue the many questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick’s conduct to the full extent of its authority.”

“And where that authority finds its limits, the conference will advocate with those who do have the authority,” he said. “One way or the other, we are determined to find the truth in this matter.”

Cardinal DiNardo said the national investigation must uncover why “allegations of sins against chastity and human dignity” were not acted upon when they were brought to Church officials; why they were not dealt with sooner; and what seminaries have to do “to protect the freedom to discern a priestly vocation without being subject to misuse of power.”

Concerns over U.S. episcopal failures are also reinforced by an emerging global portrait of #MeToo religious sisters, seminarians and priests who sought to report their sexual abuse (up to and including repeated rape) and were failed by bishops, religious superiors and other Church authorities.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop McCarrick’s successor in Washington, floated a proposal in an Aug. 5 interview that bishops should be impaneled to investigate the disgraced archbishop and then submit the findings to the Vatican for judgment.

However, according to the consensus of a broad range of observers, from bishops to laypeople, an investigation of the archbishop conducted exclusively or primarily by a panel of his brother bishops is a non-starter.


Empower the Laity

In contrast to Cardinal Wuerl’s Aug. 5 interview, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, New York, the next day released a statement that called for a national, independent panel of expert lay faithful — completely separated from any source of power in the Church that could exert influence on them — to investigate the bishops and their enabling of spiritually “incestuous” acts against minors, seminarians and clergy.

“[W]e have reached a point where bishops alone investigating bishops is not the answer,” he wrote, and he explained that a carefully crafted group of investigators would provide a service to the Church that would in no way be compromised by some financial, political or personal benefit to the individuals on the panel. Bishop Scharfenberger said this lay-led response fits with the calling of the lay faithful’s baptized priesthood and should be commissioned and “duly approved by the Holy See.” 

Janet Smith, professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said a national investigative body, composed of laypeople without any ties to the clerical structure, needs to go beyond Archbishop McCarrick and dismantle the culture of adult sexual abuse and harassment from top to bottom that takes place in dioceses and rectories.

The sexual abuse of priests and seminarians, she said, is “horrendous,” not only for the victims, but also for the Church, robbing them both of vocations. Smith suggested a national investigative commission be composed of “very trusted” laypeople, who love the Church and “are not afraid of what response there will be to the truths that are found.” They should be empowered to enlist the expertise of law enforcement to determine which accusations are credible and help bishops and clergy clean up the Church, she said.


More Accountability

Marie Collins, an Irish sex-abuse survivor and a former member of the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, told Catholic News Agency that Cardinal Wuerl’s Aug. 5 proposal was “disturbing.”

She said the Archbishop McCarrick situation is a product of the fact that the bishops did not bind themselves to the USCCB’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People when that document was crafted in 2002, in response to the revelations of widespread sex abuse of minors by clergy. Its “Statement of Episcopal Commitment,” in which bishops promised to self-report allegations of sexual abuse made against them to the apostolic nuncio, and to similarly report allegations they received from other bishops, had demonstrably failed, according to Collins.

Collins said the U.S. bishops need to be subject to the same rules as priests and deacons, and real reform should include establishing a national body charged with inspecting dioceses.

“Each diocese should open itself to an annual audit by an independent body, with diocesan bishops making all their files available,” she said, saying this is the practice now in Ireland, and the Irish audits are published.

Stephen de Weger, an Australian researcher of clerical sexual abuse of adults, told the Register that the willingness of so many clergy to live a “double life” — vowing celibacy, yet engaging in sexual activity with either men or women — may compromise their ability to take effective action against sexual abuse. “There is a great possibility of blackmail,” he said. A sexually predatory cleric gains leverage over other people also living a double life, who may occupy all sorts of levels in the chancery, the seminary, or even be the bishop himself.

And when such priests observe a superior or peer preying on his spiritual charges — whether that is a priest, a seminarian or  a nun, or a member of the laity — they  might turn the other way, because they are mindful of their own violations of celibate chastity or they simply have no problem with such activity.

Also, de Weger said, many bishops and clerics do not understand that the “power dynamics” of a cleric and anyone in a subordinate position to him makes sexual activity between them nonconsensual.


Diocesan Panels

Some dioceses are also appealing to the lay faithful for help in guaranteeing the independence of investigations.

In the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, Bishop James Conley announced he would convene the diocesan review board, which is “an independent group of lay experts in the fields of law enforcement investigation and psychology,” to deal with recently disclosed allegations of abuse. The diocese has been rocked by reports that a former longtime vocations director, Msgr. Leonard Kalin, who died in 2008, allegedly preyed on seminarians.

Bishop James Checchio of Metuchen, New Jersey, who in June disclosed diocesan settlements related to Archbishop McCarrick’s alleged sexual abuse of his seminarians and priests during the period in the 1980s when he served as the bishop of Metuchen, agreed in an Aug. 7 statement that the lay faithful need to be involved. Furthermore, seminarians and priests need to be freed from any fear of retribution, said Bishop Checchio, who tasked his advisers with developing an independent lay team to handle such allegations. Bishop Checchio was not involved in the McCarrick abuse settlements because he became the local bishop of Metuchen in 2016, several years after they were negotiated.

Father Gerald Murray, a canon lawyer and pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City, said the U.S. bishops’ conference could task a group of laypeople to investigative under current canon law.

“This group, to accomplish its work, would need to be given the power to compel each diocese to reveal its records, archives and other materials that the group would certainly demand to see, and also given the power to compel testimony from bishops and diocesan employees,” he said.

Father Murray said the bishops’ conference would have to obtain the power from the Pope to require U.S. bishops and diocesan officials to comply fully with an investigation, which would then make its findings public.

Msgr. William King, a canon lawyer who has prosecuted clerical sex-abuse cases, said that dioceses need to have independent investigators from outside the diocese, in order to guarantee the investigations’ credibility and that their findings will be both “impartial and objective.”

“Given the relationships between a bishop and his clergy and faithful, it can’t be from among the faithful; it has to come from outside the diocese,” he said, referring to the Vatican.

Msgr. King said the Church may be able to respond more effectively to these issues by decentralizing Vatican authority to mete out canonical justice in an effective and timely manner.

The Catholic Church has 5,100 bishops alone worldwide, he noted, and given the size of the Church and the varying legal and cultural climates around the world, the Vatican’s bureaucracy, far away and armed with a one-size-fits-all process, would likely be overwhelmed to handle the global flood of investigative fact-findings and inevitable appeals.

Another proposal would overhaul canon law to “recapture the ancient schema” of the metropolitan archbishop, convening the province’s bishops to consider a disciplinary action against a cleric, even a bishop, and confirm judgments, including loss of office. The Bishop of Rome still would function as the final court of appeal for such decisions, however.


Decisive, Permanent Action

Msgr. King said he knows as a pastor the love the faithful have for the Church. The truth does not scandalize them, he said; what scandalizes them are cover-ups and lying. “Laypeople can handle the truth,” he stressed.

Msgr. King said the Church’s past experience showed the canonical punishments for sexual abuse had to be permanent. For other offenses, the threat of temporary loss of office may force compliance with good behavior. But not when it comes to sexual abuse.

“The effects on victims are permanent. The risk of recidivism is too high. It has to be a permanent loss of ministry,” he said, “for a bishop, as well as a priest or deacon.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.