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Catholic bishops adopt long-promised abuse plan — for bishops to police bishops

After a year of scandal, some disheartened believers say the new rules, which don’t require lay involvement, do not go far enough.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, left, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, participates in a morning prayer during the meeting in Baltimore. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Catholic faithful across the country have demanded accountability from their bishops for the past year as sexual abuse scandals unfolded at the highest levels of the church. On Thursday, the bishops at last gave their response, in the form of a slate of new policies for policing themselves.

Some Catholics, including advocates for more accountability, celebrated the new rules, which the bishops touted as major action. But to some aggrieved believers, the policies do not go nearly far enough, because they still place the responsibility for handling abuse by bishops in the hands of fellow bishops, despite years of coverups.

“The bishops are the ones making the conclusions,” said Anne Burke, an Illinois Supreme Court justice who chaired the church’s National Review Board when the sexual abuse crisis first erupted in 2002. She called the new system enacted on Thursday “a fallacy.”

“There should be no intermediary — call the police," she said. “There should be one interview, by professionals."

After three days of debate in Baltimore, most of it more collegial than contentious, the nation’s bishops emerged with the plan for handling abuse by leaders that they had been promising for most of the year. Their new policy creates a national hotline, operated by an outside vendor, for Catholics to call or write with complaints that a bishop has abused a child, sexually harassed an adult or mishandled an abuse report.

Catholic bishops vote to create hotline for reporting abuse by bishops

When the hotline receives a report, it will ordinarily relay it to a leading bishop in the region where the accused bishop works or worked. The bishop who receives the report will be responsible for reporting to law enforcement and to the Vatican, and for bringing in laypeople to help investigate the complaint. The measures also allow for bishops to direct the complaint calls to a layperson.

That’s a far cry from the bishops’ original proposal, debated at their biannual meeting in November, which called for a national body of laypeople who would be empowered to investigate bishops. That idea collapsed when the Vatican insisted they wait until after a global bishops’ summit on sex abuse in February.

“They’re finally doing the bare minimum,” said Adrienne Alexander, who organized nationwide protests calling for bishop accountability after a Pennsylvania grand jury report last summer revealed the extent of the abuse and coverup by the church. She wrote in an email to The Washington Post that she felt this week’s action did not provide what was being demanded by her and other Catholic faithful who organized fiery petitions and demonstrations outside churches.

“There still doesn’t seem to be any of the visible urgency, despair, frustration that so many of us still in the pews feel,” she said.

But many of the bishops felt they had achieved a milestone.

“I am so encouraged by what we have been doing this week, especially the votes we’ve just taken,” Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington told The Post. “What I have heard from the faithful is, ‘We want greater transparency. We want accountability.’ I think the measures are enacted.”

The past year has been a dizzying one for the Catholic Church: Prominent former cardinal Theodore McCarrick was publicly accused of abuse in June 2018 and removed entirely from the priesthood by February. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington denied knowing about McCarrick’s misconduct and then retired amid protest; reporting by The Post showed that he had indeed known. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò claimed in an explosive letter that shook the church that Pope Francis also knew. A Post investigation published last week showed that a West Virginia bishop had doled out $350,000 in checks to church leaders. And perhaps the most significant driver of activism in the U.S. Catholic Church, taking faithful Catholics from the pews to protests, was the Pennsylvania grand jury report in August, which documented the alleged abuse by clergy of more than 1,000 victims in the state and inspired states across the country to open similar investigations.

W.Va. bishop gave powerful cardinals and other priests $350,000 in cash gifts before his ouster, church records show

Catholics were waiting to see whether the bishops would fulfill their promises to finally address the issue at their meeting this week.

Much of the debate revolved around how strongly the bishops would call for the involvement of laypeople, while sticking to the constraints imposed by Pope Francis in a new worldwide rule issued at the February summit. The pope decreed that all investigations of accused bishops be supervised by a leading local bishop, not a national body or independent nonclerical commission.

“Lay involvement should be mandatory, to make darn sure that we bishops do not harm the church,” Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Mo., exhorted other bishops. “Even though the protocol from the Holy Father does not require it, we can pledge ourselves to do so.”

The bishops eventually approved two items strongly encouraging, if not requiring, lay involvement. Each archbishop “should identify a qualified lay person to receive reports” of misconduct by bishops, according to an item the bishops added on the final day of debate. They also included this statement in a new list of principles affirmed by bishops, which replaced a code of conduct that was proposed in November: “We are also committed, when receiving and investigating such cases, to include the counsel of lay men and women whose professional backgrounds are indispensable.”

“How much more strongly can we say it? We say it’s indispensable,” Burbidge said.

Bishop Shawn Biegler, who led a recent investigation into abuse allegedly committed by his predecessor in the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo., said he brought in a local lawyer who had handled more than 200 sexual abuse cases. “There’s no way a bishop knows how to do this by himself. You just can’t do it well. A bishop has neither the background nor the time,” he said in an interview with The Post.

Biegler said that although the bishops could not make the use of lay investigators mandatory because of the constraints of Pope Francis’s decree, he thinks every bishop will seek such assistance. “Is this ideal?” he shrugged. “I think we’ve gained great ground here.”

Some activists agreed with the bishops. Skip Horvath, a retiree in Falls Church, Va., who has recently devoted himself full time to volunteer activism on the topic of clergy abuse, said he is confident that laypeople will be involved. “If this results in bishops investigating bishops, we’re back in the McCarrick situation.”

Horvath wants the church to release information including how much money from parishioners’ donations is being spent on the sex abuse crisis and settlements. The bishops did not discuss any subject relating to church finances during the meeting.

Georgetown University’s John Carr, a former staff member for the U.S. bishops who has been vocal in the past year about his own childhood abuse and the need for church reform, also hailed the new system. “This, for the church, is very significant change," he said. “Now, if you know something, there’s a place to call. And they have to share that with the archbishop in charge, with the pope’s representative, and with the Vatican. ... We all ought to watch and test and see if they’re going to be true to their promises.”

Bishops raised questions during the final hour of debate about the propriety of local bishops handling investigations. They pointed out that under the model they adopted Thursday, an archbishop would be tasked with handling a report of misconduct by one of his auxiliary bishops or by his retired predecessor, the bishop emeritus of his diocese. They also wondered whether the plan ensured bishops would move quickly to address reports.

In a separate proposal, they approved consequences for former bishops who have been removed from office or retired and are found to have committed abuse or to have mishandled cases of abuse. These bishops now officially can be, but are not required to be, disciplined in a variety of ways, including being denied travel funds, barred from preaching and administering certain sacraments, and denied burial in their cathedrals.

Jason Berry, who has written several investigative books about the Catholic Church, said Thursday’s actions show a body of bishops worried that state prosecutors across the country are conducting criminal investigations of the Catholic Church. “This is not a group of men accustomed to regulation as we know it in the democratic sense,” he said. He said the new policies show that bishops are "deep into a mode of self-protection.”

Christopher Jolly Hale, a political activist who led Catholic outreach for President Barack Obama, said this week’s actions won’t cure the faithful’s lost trust in the church. “If there was ever a time for a rapid response, this was it, and they failed miserably,” he said.

He likened the bishops to a football team that’s far out of reach of the goal post, but chooses to cautiously move the ball a little way down the field. “I’m angry as hell,” he said. “My favorite prayer is the Hail Mary, but it also needs to be our play.”