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Bishop says ‘nothing could be more important’ than dealing with the crisis

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The U.S. bishops met in Baltimore June 11-13 with one overriding priority — to adopt procedures that will hold bishops accountable for sexual misconduct or other gross failures of leadership. 

“The spirit was one of urgency,” Bishop Michael F. Burbidge said of the general assembly during his Walk Humbly Podcast. “We prepared for this meeting — we had conference calls, we had webinars preparing us for what the action items would be. We had our retreat in January, which I think set the tone for this meeting that we were entering having already been together in prayer, trusting our work to the Lord. We have communicated well with the Holy See.”

By the end of the general assembly, the bishops approved three important documents they hope will improve accountability and transparency. “I am extremely pleased that the goals and the objectives with which we entered the meeting were accomplished,” said Bishop Burbidge. 

The first was the “Protocol Regarding Available Non-Penal Restrictions on Bishops,” which would allow bishops who have resigned or were removed from ministry for reasons of sexual misconduct or the mishandling thereof to be restricted in certain ways, such as being barred from public ministry. These limitations could be implemented by that bishop’s successor, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was given the authority to restrict participation in USCCB committees and/or meetings. 

The second action was “Affirming Our Episcopal Commitments,” a code of conduct for all the bishops in light of the current crisis. Among other things, the document says bishops will continue to listen to and care for victim/survivors and will involve the laity in investigations against bishops. “We are also committed, when we receive or when we are authorized to investigate such cases, to include the counsel of lay men and women whose professional backgrounds are indispensable,” the document states. 

The bishops also promised to live out their commitment to celibacy. “Both our baptism and ordination call us to chaste living. We will be always mindful that there can be no ‘double life,’ no ‘special circumstances,’ no ‘secret life’ in the practice of chastity,” said the document.

The third, “Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of ‘Vos estis lux mundi’ Concerning Bishops and their Equivalents,” established a protocol for reporting and investigating the misconduct of bishops. In May, Pope Francis issued his own directive, or motu proprio, “Vos estis lux mundi,” about how to handle such cases, and the USCCB’s document was written in light of the pope’s instructions. 

There are several ways to report wrongdoing in addition to this new option. “If anyone has a concern about bishops’ misconduct, violation of boundaries or sexual misconduct, they can, as is always the case, go to civil authorities, they can report it to the papal nuncio or the metropolitan,” he said. “But we also established a national hotline that you can call,” he added. “Basically, it would be with a firm who operates this hotline for us, who receives the complaint and then automatically forwards it to the metropolitan archbishop.” 

The church is made up of ecclesiastical provinces, headed by a metropolitan archbishop. The Diocese of Arlington is part of the ecclesiastical province of Baltimore, and Archbishop William E. Lori is the metropolitan archbishop of this province.  

 If an accusation is made against the metropolitan, the investigation would fall to the senior suffragan, or the ordinary who has been serving longest in that province.

The bishops voted to allow the executive committee of the USCCB to work out the implementation of creating such a hotline, to be approved by the administrative committee. The details of the plan will then be sent to the Holy See for approval. Bishop Burbidge believes the plan will be approved in a timely manner, hopefully well before the bishops’ meeting in November. After it is established, the number will be disseminated to the public. 

Pope Francis has asked that the motu proprio be evaluated in three years and the U.S. bishops also want to continually re-evaluate their own plan. “We understand right now that there is an urgency to address this crisis, this challenge, that we are to begin to restore the trust of the faithful,” said Bishop Burbidge.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019