Lay Review With Teeth: What (Didn’t) Happen at the Vatican’s Sexual Abuse Summit

The Vatican’s recent Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church failed to produce any new reforms. Cardinal Cupich’s proposal would leave decision-making power in the hands of those authorities that Church members trust least: the bishops and the Vatican hierarchy. Instead, the Church needs to take investigatory and disciplinary processes out of the hands of local bishops and assign them to a national panel with lay members.

The Vatican’s recent Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church, a global gathering of Church leaders to discuss the sex abuse scandals, disappointed a great many people. No new reforms emerged from the Meeting—nor did even so much as an agenda for future reforms.

In the United States, the summit’s fizzled outcome was especially disappointing, because the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had been prepared to move forward with reforms at its Fall 2018 meeting. That effort was immediately squelched, however, as Vatican officials directed that the USCCB take no action until after the just-concluded Meeting.

So what happens next?

In his closing remarks at the recent Meeting, Pope Francis announced that the Church will be guided by eight principles. The fifth is the one most pertinent for present purposes:

Strengthening and reviewing guidelines by Episcopal Conferences. In other words, reaffirming the need for bishops to be united in the application of parameters that serve as rules and not simply indications. Rules, not simply indications. No abuse should ever be covered up (as was often the case in the past) or not taken sufficiently seriously, since the covering up of abuses favors the spread of evil and adds a further level of scandal. Also and in particular, developing new and effective approaches for prevention in all institutions and in every sphere of ecclesial activity.

This statement appears to have two implications of particular significance. First, it suggests the Vatican may allow individual national conferences to develop their own rules as befits their local situation. Second, it also suggests that no specific reforms have been foreclosed.

Reform Proposals

In my earlier article here at Public Discourse, which drew on a much longer forthcoming law review article, I proposed a number of reforms that the USCCB ought to consider:

  1. Mechanisms should be created to enable anonymous whistleblowing and to protect whistleblowers from retaliation.
  2. Priests and members of religious orders should be required to report any abuses they observe, while non-clerical employees could be encouraged but not required to do the same.
  3. At the diocesan level, responsibility for responding to allegations should be vested in a committee with at least a majority composed of independent laity, with exclusive power to review charges of sexual misconduct, take internal disciplinary measures, and notify civil authorities.
  4. At the national level, there should be a new committee under the auspices of the USCCB that would hear cases in which the alleged misconduct was committed or enabled by a sitting bishop.

These proposals are directed at any form of sexual misconduct by priests, religious, and Church employees. As the Meeting’s title suggests, the Pope and Vatican leaders appear to be focused exclusively on the problem of sexual abuse of minors. There was no discussion of the closely related problems of sexual abuse of vulnerable adults and consensual sexual relationships by priests with adults, both of which also must be addressed. On the other hand, nothing emerged from the Meeting to preclude national conferences from addressing that problem, and the recommendations made above with regard to them are therefore still valid.

Evaluating the Metropolitan Model

Looking forward, one reform model likely to get serious consideration by the USCCB is the “Metropolitan Model” proposed by Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, who is widely regarded as a close ally of Pope Francis. The likelihood that the Metropolitan Model will end up being the official USCCB position is substantial, particularly because it is also supported by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who is generally regarded as being a leader of the more conservative members of the Conference.

In a presentation to the Meeting, Cupich set forth a number of principles that he believed should guide the Church as it reforms. Of special relevance to the reforms proposed above, Cardinal Cupich affirmed “that every member of the Church has an essential role in helping the Church to eliminate the horrific reality of clergy sexual abuse.” The Cardinal’s Metropolitan Model therefore includes a role for the laity in all accountability processes, which is consistent with the proposals made herein.

Importantly, Cardinal Cupich recognized “the systematic failures in holding clerics of all rank responsible” and the need for “accountability within the college of bishops.” He therefore proposed several specific reforms aimed directly at holding bishops accountable. In many respects, those proposals are consistent with the recommendations made above. For example, Cardinal Cupich proposed that retaliation against any person making allegations should be prohibited; this would permit the sort of whistle-blower protections proposed above. Likewise, he calls for lay involvement “in the process from beginning to end.”

But Cardinal Cupich’s proposed accountability mechanism differs from mine in some critical respects. First, his proposals are limited to developing new mechanisms for holding bishops accountable. This is a necessary but not sufficient reform. Instead, the Church should undertake major reforms of the rules governing sexual misconduct at all levels and by all Church personnel.

Second, the Cardinal suggests that allegations of misconduct against a bishop be referred to the bishop’s metropolitan (the archbishop who supervises the episcopal province that includes the accused bishop’s diocese), rather than to a national review board. The metropolitan’s powers also would be far more limited than those I have proposed granting to the national review board. The metropolitan would require approval from the Vatican before initiating an investigation. Upon completion of the investigation, the metropolitan would forward his findings to the Vatican. The final decision of whether to take disciplinary action and the nature of that discipline would rest with the Vatican.

Trust, but Verify

Cardinal Cupich’s model has a number of disadvantages. First, in modern times, the role of a metropolitan has been reduced to a virtual irrelevancy. Many Church members have never even heard of a metropolitan. The metropolitan model therefore may not do much to restore confidence in the Church.

Second, although the metropolitan model purportedly contemplates lay participation, it appears that the laity’s role would be limited to experts who will act as assistants to the metropolitan. In other words, the laity will continue to be denied a decision-making role in the accountability process. Cardinal Cupich’s proposal leaves decision-making power in the hands of those authorities that Church members trust least: the bishops and the Vatican hierarchy.

Cardinal Cupich’s proposal leaves decision-making power in the hands of those authorities that Church members trust least: the bishops and the Vatican hierarchy.

Assigning primary responsibility for investigated claims against a bishop to that bishop’s metropolitan is especially problematic, as Charles Collins of the Catholic news website Crux has observed, because “metropolitan archbishops often have a lot of say in who becomes bishops in their province.” Church members likely will lack confidence in the metropolitan’s ability to be objective with respect to someone who may be regarded as a protégé, friend, or ally of the metropolitan.

The relationship between a metropolitan and his suffragan bishops becomes even more problematic when it is the metropolitan himself who is the accused. Recall that now defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick served as a metropolitan twice, as Archbishop of Newark and then of Washington. If Cardinal Cupich’s proposal had been in effect, one of McCarrick’s victims would have had to go outside the archdiocese and file a report with the senior suffragan bishop in the province, who would then be responsible for conducting the investigation. When much of the time McCarrick was Archbishop of Newark, the senior suffragan bishop for that province was Bishop Frank Rodimer of Paterson. Rodimer reportedly shared a summer house with Father Peter Osinski, who was later convicted of having molested a young boy at that house over a seven year period in the 1980s. A civil suit alleged that Rodimer was negligent in failing to recognize the abuse, but the suit was settled. Rodimer apologized and also admitted to having mishandled other abuse cases in his diocese. Yet, it would have been Rodimer who would have been responsible for conducting any investigation of McCarrick.

Obviously not every senior suffragan bishop is as compromised as Rodimer would have been; but why would the laity trust anyone who is a subordinate and likely protégé of the metropolitan to conduct a fair and impartial investigation? In the corporate world, after all, we don’t ask a Vice President to investigate allegations against the CEO. Instead, we ask the board of directors to do so.

In sum, as Collins observes:

The biggest problem facing the [proposal] is the lack of trust people have in the bishops right now. The national review panel originally proposed by the U.S. bishops was an acknowledgement of this fact. The “metropolitan model” is, in effect, the bishops saying, “Don’t worry. You can trust us.”

As Ronald Reagan famously observed, however, “trust but verify.” The proposals I have advanced provide the necessary verification by taking the investigatory and disciplinary processes out of the hands of local bishops and assigning them to a national panel with lay members. Thus, they are thus far more likely to restore confidence in the Church.

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