On Thursday, Pope Francis and the presidents of the world’s Episcopal Conferences will converge on the Vatican for a summit to address sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The world will be watching, most especially survivors of clergy sexual abuse, who deserve both justice for the crimes committed against them and pastoral support as they continue a lifetime process of healing. Public officials, notably law enforcement, and the Catholic faithful will also watch to see if the church is sincere and capable of addressing this tragic issue. It is difficult to imagine that concrete universal norms will emerge from this gathering, given the diversity of cultures and perspectives that will be represented at this meeting, along with the signal being sent from Rome itself that expectations for outcomes should not be high.
Thus far, the bishops’ response to the crisis has been incomplete. The faithful and the clergy have lost trust in the ability of their shepherds to lead. The ongoing crisis in the United States has revealed that the church must not only address sexual abuse, but also the bishops’ abuse of power. The Pennsylvania grand jury report, with its limitations, and the revelations regarding former archbishop Theodore McCarrick demonstrated that this issue transcends sexual abuse of minors; it represents a systemic failure to protect the most vulnerable and hold aggressors accountable.
When the bishops meet with Pope Francis this week, it is hoped that the proposals that the US bishops were not permitted to vote on last November will be discussed and given serious consideration. Allowing our bishops to respond to the current crisis in a substantive way is critical if the church is going to begin to heal.
With the assistance of laity who serve on a diocesan review board or external entity, each bishop should declare his intentions to conduct a thorough review of his diocesan and seminary files and share the findings with the public. It is the public’s right to know of those who have been credibly accused of abuse. By doing so, it is the hope of the National Review Board, or NRB, that other victims may come forward to begin a process of healing.
Next, there must be full accountability of all bishops, including those who have abused their positions of power by ignoring credible allegations of abuse, by committing abuse themselves, or by having engaged in sexual misconduct or harassment. Such accountability must include investigations of all allegations regarding bishops by a lay commission that has independent authority and that can report the findings of their investigation to the nuncio. There must also be the establishment of a third-party reporting system that will provide a mechanism to report allegations of abuse, coverups, or sexual misconduct by bishops outside of and independent from church bureaucracy. If bishops are found to have failed in their responsibility to protect the vulnerable, there must be consequences.
In addition to these proposals, the NRB advocates for another revision of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. First and foremost, bishops must be included in the charter explicitly. In addition, the audit of parishes and schools must be a requirement of the charter. This is the only way in which a bishop can know with certainty that the implementation of the charter is actually occurring locally and if the data reported during the audit is accurate. Strengthening the audit is necessary to determine whether a diocese is truly compliant.
If the church is going to adequately address the current crisis, a more meaningful and influential role needs to be provided for the laity who have the competency, knowledge, and relevant experience to help the bishops create an environment of safety within the church, which will necessitate their being held accountable when they fail to follow proper protocols for responding to allegations of abuse. We have witnessed time and again the painful results of the bishops’ turning a deaf ear to the advice and counsel of laity in addressing the sexual abuse crisis.
The NRB does not suggest that the laity should assume day-to-day administration and responsibility of the church; rather, at this time in the church’s history, it is necessary to acknowledge the co-responsibility of the laity for the church by increasing their role in assisting the bishops and clergy who do not have experience in preventing and responding to allegations of abuse. The church should not fear such engagement by the laity, but rather welcome it.
Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the laity’s responsibility in the life of the church during the opening of the Pastoral Convention of the Diocese of Rome, in 2009, stating, “At the same time, it is necessary to improve pastoral structures in such a way that the co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted, with respect for vocations and for the respective roles of the consecrated and of lay people. This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy but truly recognized as ‘co-responsible,’ for the church’s being and action.”
Bishops and priests must lead in the daunting yet necessary task of purging from the church the evil of the abuse of minors and others, but they cannot do so alone.
Francesco C. Cesareo is president of Assumption College and chair of the National Review Board.