U.S. Bishops Embrace Full Accountability for Clerical Sex Abuse

Picture of an image of the Virgin taken during an extraordinary meeting of Chile's Episcopal Conference to analyze the roots of the current crisis that the Catholic Church is experiencing in the country, burdened by the scandals of sexual abuse and cover-up, and how to overcome it, in Punta de …
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THOMAS D. WILLIAMS, PH.D.

U.S. bishops introduced a series of sweeping measures Wednesday intended to streamline reporting of sexual abuse and ensure that justice is done to victims.

“We humbly welcome and are grateful for the assistance of the whole people of God in holding us accountable,” said the statement of the bishops’ administrative committee, which went well beyond earlier actions that failed to address the specific responsibility of bishops in dealing with clerical sex abuse.

For the first time, the proposed measures also move beyond the sexual abuse of minors to include all forms of sexual abuse, harassment, and misconduct.

Spurred on by revelations of decades-long homosexual abuse by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, much of whose sexual misbehavior involved men who were not legally minors, the bishops’ statement extends the sort of abuse to be reported to include “sexual harassment of or misconduct with adults, including seminarians and priests.”

The new statement lays out four specific actions “within its authority,” which also put pressure on the Vatican to complete these actions with measures that fall within its unique competence.

First, the bishops have approved the establishment of a “third-party reporting system” to receive confidentially, by phone and online, complaints of sexual abuse of minors by a bishop as well as sexual harassment of or sexual misconduct with adults by a bishop. Those complaints will be directed to the appropriate ecclesiastical authority and, as required by applicable law, to civil authorities.

Second, the bishops announced the development of “policies addressing restrictions on bishops who were removed or resigned because of allegations of sexual abuse of minors or sexual harassment of or misconduct with adults, including seminarians and priests.”

One complaint made against the way the McCarrick case was handled is that he continued to travel freely about and to reside in seminaries even after his sexual abuse was known.

Third, the bishops are developing a “Code of Conduct” for bishops regarding the sexual abuse of a minor; sexual harassment of or sexual misconduct with an adult; or negligence in the exercise of his office related to such cases. Such a code of conduct has been notoriously absent in the past.

Fourth, the bishops announced their full support for a thorough “investigation into the situation surrounding Archbishop McCarrick,” including his alleged assaults on minors, priests, and seminarians, as well any responses made to those allegations.

Responding to calls for greater lay involvement in dealing with clerical sex abuse, the bishops said that such an investigation “should rely upon lay experts in relevant fields, such as law enforcement and social services.”

In their statement, the bishops acknowledge that these four measures are “only a beginning” and announce ongoing consultation with a broad range of concerned parents, experts, and other laity along with clergy and religious in order to determine additional, specific measures to be taken “to repair the scandal and restore justice.”

Wednesday’s statement was fruit of a meeting of the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington last week “at this time of shame and sorrow.”

In an odd juxtaposition, as the U.S. bishops have been apologizing for personal failures and drafting serious measures to effectively deal with the sex abuse scandal, Pope Francis has been calling out accusers, comparing them to Satan.

On Tuesday of this week, the pope said that pastors accused of misconduct are like Jesus on Good Friday, who responded with silence to the accusations laid against him.

The pope himself has responded with silence to allegations that he was fully aware of Cardinal McCarrick’s sexual abuse and yet elevated him to a position of prominence and influence in the Vatican.

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