The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Bishops shouldn’t investigate one another. Their U.S. conference must enact reforms.

Then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick at the Vatican in 2013.
Then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick at the Vatican in 2013. (Max Rossi/Reuters)

AS THE Catholic Church was reeling two years ago in the aftermath of revelations that former cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, one of the highest-profile prelates in this country, was a serial sexual predator, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Baltimore. At the top of the bishops’ agenda was how to grapple, once again, with the unending scandals that had ensnared so many clerics and wrecked so many lives. In the end, they did nothing.

The bishops were derailed by the Vatican, which urged them to hold off pending an action plan to be formulated in Rome for addressing wrongdoing by bishops. Yet in the end, the shortcomings of the church’s approach to rooting out misconduct in its highest ranks, which relies largely on bishops investigating and judging their fellow bishops, were exposed by an extraordinary Vatican report this week, which laid bare the details of the McCarrick case itself.

Mr. McCarrick, who was expelled from the priesthood last year, was found to have preyed on at least 17 victims. Some were young seminarians; more than half were children. The 449-page document’s headline finding is that Pope John Paul II dismissed explicit information about Mr. McCarrick’s sexual abuse in naming him archbishop of Washington in 2000. Yet the report also makes clear that at least three American bishops, tasked with investigating the allegations at the time, provided the Vatican with “inaccurate and incomplete information.” And another bishop, in Rome, who functioned as the pope’s own gatekeeper, believed Mr. McCarrick’s denials when the American prelate contacted him.

One of the main takeaways from the report, therefore, is the manifest inadequacy of the system now in place that counts on archbishops to police abuse by bishops. Yet proposals from within the American church’s U.S. hierarchy to give laypeople a prominent, formal role in investigating allegations involving bishops, floated two years in Baltimore, were controversial within the U.S. bishops conference — and do not appear to have been seriously considered by the Holy See.

That’s a problem. The report on Mr. McCarrick is itself the product of a lawyer, not a cleric, who was tasked by the Vatican. That’s just the latest confirmation that greater transparency and accountability, critical to surmounting the church’s problems, are unlikely to be achieved when the hierarchy polices ­itself.

Pope Francis himself has identified one main culprit in the church’s sex abuse scandals as clericalism, the idea that priests are due unquestioned deference. Yet in establishing a regime in which the church’s highest-ranking officials are charged with investigating and disciplining one another, the Vatican has reinforced the very insularity the pontiff identified as fertile ground for abuse.

As things stand now, laypeople may be named to investigate accusations of wrongdoing against bishops, as former FBI director Louis Freeh is doing, at the behest of the New York archdiocese, in the case of Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who is alleged to have molested an altar boy in the 1970s. Yet the church has not codified a role for lay­people in overseeing the hierarchy. It needs to, and when the U.S. bishops convene Monday, virtually, for their annual November meeting, they would be wise to consider that lesson from the McCarrick report.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: Pope Francis’s sex abuse speech was a disgraceful display of excuses

The Post’s View: Two steps forward and one step back won’t cleanse the Catholic Church

Ruth Marcus: Most of us are bad at apologizing. The pope just showed us how it’s done.

The Post’s View: The Vatican finally needs to offer more than thoughts and prayers on sexual abuse

Elizabeth Bruenig: Even as the Catholic Church claims to come clean, something is not right

Karen Tumulty: Why am I still a Catholic?