ROME — Calling sexual abuse revelations within the U.S. Catholic Church a “moral catastrophe,” the head of the American bishops’ group called Thursday for wider investigations of a former Washington archbishop and said laypeople should have a greater role in holding clerics accountable.
The announcement, which also urges new steps to resolve complaints against bishops, provides the first sense of how a reeling church seeks to confront serial failures of its hierarchy to report abuse and remove predator priests.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called for an investigation of the “questions surrounding” prelate Theodore McCarrick, a former Washington archbishop, who resigned from the College of Cardinals last month amid allegations that he abused seminarians and minors.
DiNardo said the U.S. bishops would ask the Vatican to conduct the inquiry, along with expert laypeople. Since McCarrick’s resignation, questions have included how the onetime cardinal ascended the ranks of the church despite rumors about his behavior.
DiNardo said the steps were not final and will be presented in more detail to the full group of U.S. bishops at a meeting in November.
“This is a moral catastrophe,” he said. “It is also part of this catastrophe that so many faithful priests who are pursuing holiness and serving with integrity are tainted by this failure.”
His announcement comes two days after the release of a scalding Pennsylvania grand jury report that depicted decades of systemic abuse, in which leaders kept potential criminal behavior “in house” and prioritized avoiding public scandal over protecting children.
“Whatever the details may turn out to be regarding Archbishop McCarrick or the many abuses in Pennsylvania [or anywhere else], we already know that one root cause is the failure of episcopal leadership,” DiNardo said.
“The overarching goal in all of this is stronger protections against predators in the Church and anyone who would conceal them, protections that will hold bishops to the highest standards of transparency and accountability,” he added.
DiNardo also called for new channels for reporting abuse allegations against bishops.
He did not provide specifics about several parts of his plan, including the system that would be used to judge complaints. Davide Cito, a canon lawyer based in Rome, noted that under church law, only the pope has the authority to remove bishops.
“He has exclusive competence,” Cito said. “We’ll have to see how they’ll reach an agreement.”
DiNardo said he will travel to Vatican City to present his plans to the Holy See.
In recent weeks, multiple Catholic leaders have indicated that the church’s earlier attempts to protect young people from abuse did not go far enough. Several prelates have suggested more closely involving laypeople in investigating bishops who do not report abuse.
George Weigel, who has written many books about Catholicism and is a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, based in Washington, said the plans laid out by DiNardo are a “significant step in the direction of real reform.”
“Cardinal DiNardo’s acknowledgment of a major credibility chasm between bishops and their people, and his commitment to lay leadership in addressing that crisis, which really cuts to the core of the Church’s governance, is entirely welcome,” Weigel wrote in an email.
The church has been ensnared by sexual abuse-related scandals in other countries, including Australia and Chile, creating a major challenge for Pope Francis.
On Thursday, the Vatican called the abuse described in the Pennsylvania grand jury report “criminal and morally reprehensible.”
“The church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur,” the Vatican statement said.
Three years ago, the Vatican announced — but never established — a tribunal to judge bishops accused of negligence or coverup.
Proposals such as DiNardo’s can “make for good PR,” said Donna Doucette, the executive director of Voice of the Faithful, an organization of Catholics seeking church reforms.
“But as often happens with these kinds of plans, it’s the implementation — the failure to fully implement what was imagined at the beginning,” she said.