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Significant progress in ensuring bishop accountability

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The ministry of every bishop within the Catholic Church is centered around three primary responsibilities: teaching, sanctifying and governing. The “teaching” part of my ministry is to ensure that the Catholic faith is taught in all its richness, shared and understood by the Catholic faithful. The Gospel message must be proclaimed for it to be truly lived. “Sanctifying” means to celebrate God’s love and mercy through the Sacraments, the heart of the Church and the lifeblood of all our work and life. Lastly, my duty to “govern,” which means to oversee and direct the activities of the Diocese, must be carried out with due diligence.

 

No man who becomes a bishop initially discerned his vocation to the priesthood because of his unceasing desire to manage the business of the Church or other non-profit ministries, or to balance the books of a parish. However, proper governance of a diocese ensures that our ministries are sustainable and that the faithful have confidence that they are giving their time and resources to a worthy endeavor that is oriented to God and functions in accord with the principles of our Faith.

 

From June 10-14, during the 2019 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Spring General Assembly, my brother bishops and I gathered with a singular focus: governance. With recent crises and failures involving then-Cardinal McCarrick and the poor handling by some bishops of credible allegations of sexual abuse, our obligation to develop a better system to initiate investigations against bishops was clear. Therefore, the majority of the week was devoted to this issue and much was achieved.

 

The starting point for this meeting was a motu proprio (a document initiated by the Holy Father) titled, “Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” which translates to “You Are The Light of the World.” This document that created new norms is a gift to the universal Church. It also gave the U.S. bishops a clear vision for how we could improve upon our already thorough and expansive process for reporting and investigating allegations of sexual abuse of a minor by a bishop or priest, and for caring for the victims/survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

 

The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People established reporting procedures for allegations against priests and deacons, which have been in place since 2002 and have proven to be very effective. What remained to be addressed, however, was the handling and reporting of allegations against bishops of abuse or of mishandling of abuse allegations. Since bishops are accountable to the Holy Father, a transparent process was needed to ensure that reports of abuse against a bishop are handled responsibly by Church leaders.

 

After significant consultation with experts, including many among the lay faithful, long discussions, and review of various draft plans, I am pleased to say that the June meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops provided an excellent starting point.

 

The final plan uses a third-party national hotline to ensure that reports of sexual abuse are received and investigated, and that the laity will be involved throughout the investigative and review process. Per Pope Francis’ directive in his motu proprio, the person who leads the Church’s investigation of such a report in the United States will be a Bishop appointed by the Holy See.  In many cases, this may be the metropolitan archbishop for the province.  If the allegation is against the metropolitan himself, then the next most senior bishop in active ministry in that province would be assigned by the Holy See to conduct the investigation.

 

The Church’s investigations, however, are not the same as a criminal or civil investigation that would be carried out by the appropriate authorities. Allegations of criminality received through the hotline will be reported to the legal authorities, and the metropolitan will collaborate with them to ensure that the Church’s investigation in no way impedes or conflicts with the law enforcement investigation. Victims are always encouraged to contact the legal authorities on their own as well. The hotline is only one way that such a report can be directed to the legal and ecclesial authorities.

 

The subject of lay involvement came up many times during the bishops’ discussion. As we have seen in our existing reporting, investigative and review processes for allegations of child sexual abuse by priests, the expertise and assistance of the laity are indispensable. Their participation is fundamental to our existing processes and the bishops clearly understood that they must remain integrally involved in our expanded processes as well. As such, the bishops pledged to ensure that any investigation or review that takes place will involve the counsel and expertise of qualified lay professionals.

 

I am very aware of how many of the faithful are losing confidence in Church leadership, or have even fallen away from the Church due to the failures of its leaders. This reaction is understandable but regrettable. Please know that, as your bishop, I take seriously any allegation of sexual abuse and I work to ensure that such allegations are reported to the authorities, are investigated thoroughly and are reviewed by lay men and women with the appropriate expertise. In the end, I am tasked with the governance of this diocese and cannot give that authority away. I do, however, need the support of the lay faithful and will continue to call upon qualified lay professionals to assist in the work of the Diocese. With your prayerful support, and with the grace of our Heavenly Father, I will make decisions that I believe to be just and in service to the Body of Christ.

 

My gratitude for the courage of victims who come forward to tell their stories and assist us in discovering the truth is unceasing. Their witness is inspiring and their faith is motivating. Please know of my continued prayers and desire to assist in your healing process.

 

The new processes and commitments made by the U.S. bishops are only the beginning. We have pledged to continue revising our reporting, investigative and review requirements as needed. I believe that the work of this past month, bolstered by the leadership and direction of Pope Francis, has been a significant step forward in ensuring greater accountability for the actions of bishops in the United States.

 

Please keep me and my brother bishops in your prayers, as you are most certainly in ours.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019