As the Roman Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal grows ever wider in scope in the United States, bishops convene for a national meeting in Baltimore on Tuesday under heavy pressure to acknowledge their oversight failures and give a larger role to lay Catholics and secular authorities in confronting the crisis.
The pressure comes not only from longtime critics of the church’s response to clergy sex abuse, but also from insiders who now voice doubts that the bishops are capable of handling the crisis. Among them is Francesco Cesareo, chairman of a national sex-abuse review board set up by the bishops.
‘‘My biggest concern is that it’s going to end up being bishops overseeing bishops,’’ Cesareo told Catholic News Service, the news agency of the US bishops’ conference. ‘‘If that’s the case, it’s going to be very difficult for the laity to feel any sense of confidence that anything has truly changed.’’
Sex-abuse scandals have beset the Catholic church worldwide for decades, but events of the past year have created unprecedented challenges for the US bishops. Many dioceses have become targets of state investigations since a Pennsylvania grand jury report in August detailed hundreds of cases of alleged abuse. In February, former cardinal Theodore McCarrick was expelled from the priesthood for sexually abusing minors and seminarians, and investigators are seeking to determine if some Catholic VIPs covered up his transgressions. Another investigative team recently concluded that Michael Bransfield , a former bishop in West Virginia, engaged in sexual harassment and financial misconduct over many years.
Even the president of the bishop’s conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Galveston-Houston archdiocese, has been entangled in controversies. On June 4, the Associated Press reported on a Houston woman’s allegations that DiNardo mishandled her case alleging sexual and financial misconduct by his deputy.
The archdiocese said it ‘‘categorically rejects’’ the story as biased. However, the archdiocese later said it would review the married woman’s allegations that the monsignor, Frank Rossi, continued to hear her confessions after luring her into a sexual relationship, a serious crime under church law.
SNAP, an advocacy group for clergy abuse victims, has called on DiNardo to resign or at least recuse himself from presiding over the Baltimore meeting.
The bishops had drafted some new accountability policies for their previous national meeting in November, but deferred action due to a last-minute request from the Vatican. One of those proposals would have established a new code of conduct for individual bishops; another would have created a special commission, including lay experts and clergy, to review complaints against the bishops.
In Baltimore, the bishops will be guided by a groundbreaking new law issued by Pope Francis on May 9. It requires priests and nuns worldwide to report clergy sexual abuse and coverups by their superiors to church authorities. It also calls for any claim of sexual misconduct or coverup against a bishop to be reported to the Vatican and a supervisory bishop in the United States.
SNAP said the pope’s edict was a step forward, but urged the US bishops to go further by requiring that church staff report their suspicions to police in addition to reporting internally. SNAP also said the bishops should turn over any files related to sex abuse to their state attorneys general, and it urged the bishops to ensure that all US dioceses release lists of priests, nuns, and other church staff alleged to have committed sexual abuse.
Beyond the pope’s edict, the bishops will consider creating an independent, third-party reporting system to which allegations of abuse could be filed.
John Gehring, Catholic program director at a Washington-based clergy network called Faith in Public Life, said many bishops now realize they need lay leadership as decisions on anti-abuse policies are made.
‘‘But the disagreement comes when you get down to deciding what that actually looks like in practice,’’ he said.