After months of outcry from American Catholics this year, demanding that bishops — the highest-ranking Catholic leaders in the United States — be held accountable for decades of child abuse by priests, the bishops will meet in person for the first time for a days-long reckoning about how to address the crisis.
In a highly unusual move, the bishops will put aside almost everything else on their agenda for the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops next week to focus solely on rectifying their policies on abuse. The leaders of all 196 U.S. archdioceses and dioceses are invited to attend the Baltimore event.
Many bishops and lay leaders hope they will emerge from the meeting with sweeping new procedures in place, including a lay commission empowered to investigate abuse by bishops, a new code of conduct and a plan for bishops removed from office because of their handling of abuse.
“When we come out of the meeting and are able to communicate what will be different moving forward, it’s my hope that all those who’ve been asking for such concrete steps will recognize: The bishops heard us,” said Bishop Michael Burbidge, who leads Virginia’s Diocese of Arlington. “We hear what you said. And we share those concerns. And we’re doing something about it.”
That’s a lot to get done in one meeting. But before the work begins, they will devote almost an entire day of the three-day session in Baltimore to prayer.
“All prayer. No agenda items. It’s just a day of prayer from morning until night. I think that shows the importance, that we recognize that we need some divine assistance here,” Burbidge said.
The bishops have been a primary focus of Catholics' anger this summer and fall, starting with the release of a major grand jury report in Pennsylvania in August. That report, which investigated seven decades of church history and found that more than 300 priests in the state had abused more than 1,000 children, drew attention to the conduct of bishops, who sometimes moved an abusive priest to another parish or let him return to his ministry rather than removing him or reporting him to police.
In Pennsylvania, bishops' names have been stripped from buildings and rooms that once honored them. Many of those bishops are deceased or retired, but not all. The current bishop of Pittsburgh, David Zubik, has been involved in church administration since the late 1980s and has faced calls for his resignation since the grand jury report.
Donald Wuerl, whose actions during his 18 years as bishop of Pittsburgh were scrutinized closely in the grand jury report, was the archbishop of Washington when the report came out. After months of furious pressure from parishioners and highly involved Catholics in the District and Maryland, Wuerl retired because of the condemnation of his conduct. (He remains the acting administrator of the Archdiocese of Washington, until Pope Francis selects his successor.)
Across the country, as more than a dozen states and a federal U.S. attorney have followed Pennsylvania’s lead since August and opened criminal or civil investigations into the Catholic Church, concerned Catholics have focused their attention on the conduct of bishops. Many have called for the increased participation of lay leaders — people who are not ordained clergy but, instead, parishioners in the pews — to oversee the bishops' conduct. Some have raised the question of mass resignation of some of the longest-serving bishops, who have led the church since long before the U.S. dioceses reformed their policies for handling abuse of children, in light of the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposé of pervasive crimes.
In response to these calls for reform, the bishops will consider three new policies at their meeting in Baltimore.
First, they will debate whether to create a new commission of lay people to investigate complaints against bishops. The U.S. bishops have already committed to hiring an outside vendor to run a hotline for reporting abuse, or mishandling of an abuse case, by bishops. That vendor is still being selected, but once the church signs a contract, the hotline operator will be directed to refer complaints to law enforcement when appropriate, according to U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spokesman James Rogers.
If the bishops create this lay commission, the hotline could also funnel reports to the commission, which would make recommendations for disciplining bishops, when necessary, to the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, who would refer the complaints to the bishops' supervisors in Rome.
Second, the bishops will consider a draft that would create a new code of conduct for bishops, who currently don’t have a written framework of professional ethics. Depending on the language that the bishops agree to during a two-day process of amendments and debate, the new standards of conduct could cover sexual relationships with adults and other questions of abuse of power.
This proposal is likely to provoke the most controversy among the bishops. “I think the whole thing of a code of conduct for the bishops to me is unnecessary. We have a code of conduct — it’s called the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s called living a good, holy life," said Bishop Christopher Coyne of Vermont’s Diocese of Burlington. “This is the life that we’re called to live as bishops. That would be a code of conduct enough.”
After a moment of reflection, Coyne modified his view. “I wish it wasn’t necessary, but it is. Given what has happened in the past and has happened currently, it is.”
But while some bishops are entering the meeting optimistic about voting in a full slate of new policies, Coyne said he’s not sure all the proposals will survive the debate. “It’s most important that we talk positively about what we have accomplished, our protection of children over the past 16 years, and we also talk about our shame and hurt and guilt we owe collectively," he said. “I hope we’re not in a worse place going out of it than we are coming in. ... I’m just trying to lessen people’s expectations of what can be accomplished, going into this meeting, so we don’t have a huge disappointment at the end as to what was accomplished.”
Finally, the attendees will consider what to do with bishops who have already been, or will be, removed from their positions because of sexual misconduct or mishandling of abuse. The role of bishop is set up to be lifelong, with a promise of full financial support from the church, including an income and housing through retirement. Currently, disgraced ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick is moving into a friary in a remote Kansas town. Wuerl’s retirement housing is still being determined. West Virginia’s Bishop Michael Bransfield was removed from ministry in September because of sexual misconduct allegations, and the bishops expect that other bishops could be removed for similar causes in the future.
The bishops could approve a consistent standard for such cases at the meeting, including restrictions on former bishops' permission to lead Mass and other services.
Becky Ianni, a leader of SNAP, an advocacy group for victims of clergy abuse, said she is dubious about the bishops' efforts at reform, especially since the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, will be leading the forum. DiNardo himself has been accused of improperly handling an abusive priest in his Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
“It’s kind of hypocritical for him to lead a discussion of what to do with bishops. Is he going to come up?” Ianni said. “I have concerns about what it says to victims, that we have someone here who we know covered up abuse, and we’re supposed to trust that he’s going to do what’s best for victims.”
She won’t be satisfied, she said, just to see a code of conduct written. She wants to see bishops — potentially dozens of them — who ever had a role in covering up abuse forced out of their positions.
The bishops will also vote on a letter condemning racism, which they began drafting after the Charlottesville demonstration of 2017 and which was expected to be the centerpiece of this meeting, had the sexual abuse crisis not taken center stage this summer.
But before it all gets started, the bishops will pray. Their meeting Monday will be chock full of ritual. Mass. Guided prayer and reflection about the grievous effects of sexual abuse. Time for confession.
A full day in prayer and contemplation can be rare for busy bishops, Rogers said. “We’re all very action-oriented people. It’s easy to forget, leading the complex organization of a diocese — all the parishes and schools. This invites them out of the administration of the church, and into why the church is here to begin with.”