In his Letter to the People of God responding to the sexual abuse of minors, Pope Francis wrote: “I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable. We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.”
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), has issued a statement [U.S. Catholic Bishops Response] in response to the recent reports of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy: “We are faced with a spiritual crisis that requires not only spiritual conversion, but practical changes to avoid repeating the sins and failures of the past that are so evident”
Cardinal DiNardo announced that the U.S. Bishops have established three goals for action:
(1) an investigation into the questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick; (2) an opening of new and confidential channels for reporting complaints against bishops; and (3) advocacy for more effective resolution of future complaints. These goals will be pursued according to three criteria: proper independence, sufficient authority, and substantial leadership by laity.
Regarding the criteria, he explained:
The first criterion is genuine independence. Any mechanism for addressing any complaint against a bishop must be free from bias or undue influence by a bishop. Our structures must preclude bishops from deterring complaints against them, from hampering their investigation, or from skewing their resolution.
The second criterion relates to authority in the Church. Because only the Pope has authority to discipline or remove bishops, we will assure that our measures will both respect that authority and protect the vulnerable from the abuse of ecclesial power.
Our third criterion is substantial involvement of the laity. Lay people bring expertise in areas of investigation, law enforcement, psychology, and other relevant disciplines, and their presence reinforces our commitment to the first criterion of independence.
Cardinal DiNardo outlined the process which the U.S. Bishops will follow: “We have already begun to develop a concrete plan for accomplishing these goals, relying upon consultation with experts, laity, and clergy, as well as the Vatican. We will present this plan to the full body of bishops in our November meeting. In addition, I will travel to Rome to present these goals and criteria to the Holy See, and to urge further concrete steps based on them.”
Pope Francis has already shown his willingness to hold bishops accountable. He accepted the resignation of five Chilean bishops because of their failure to respond properly to sexual abuse cases and/or to protect perpetrators of sexual abuse in the Church in Chile. Pope Francis also immediately accepted the resignation of Archbishop McCarrick from the College of Cardinals and assigned him to a life of prayer and penance, as he awaits a canonical (church) trial.
The Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, led by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, has already studied some of these issues and have made proposals about how the Church receives and examines complaints of episcopal abuse of office (such as a bishop’s own action to harm someone under his authority (minor or adult) or acting improperly in responding/covering up reports of sexual abuse or other misconduct).
So the work is underway.
These are complex and difficult issues. There must be a straightforward process for reporting misconduct that is clear, straightforward, understood by people and easily accessible. There must be a thorough and honest investigation by impartial outside experts. There must be procedures in place to protect whistleblowers (i.e. anyone making a report and anyone who provides evidence/ testimony). There must be transparency and fairness at every step leading up to the final decision and action. The rights of every person must be honored and respected, including the presumption of innocent until proven guilty and due process for anyone accused. There must be outcomes that are seen as just and deserving.
The Church has its own legal process, which it will use, and that process will be different than the U.S. legal process people here are familiar with. This will require some work by U.S. Catholics to understand fully the hows and whys of the process the Catholic Church ultimately establishes for the U.S. and for the universal Church throughout the world.
As Cardinal DiNardo noted, ultimately it is the Pope who will decide and approve the process – and ultimately the Pope who must make the final decision on the outcome of each case, if only to serve as the court of final appeal to confirm the decision of lower courts and courts of appeal.
For the Catholic faithful, this will require our participation, but also our patience.
It requires our participation:
- By our continued prayer and fasting for the reform of the Church;
- By participation of the laity, sharing their skills, talents, training, expertise and experience as they are called to participate in the various committees, task forces, consultations that take place in crafting the new norms and procedures;
- By continuing to pay attention and keep informed that the Church is keeping its word and proceeding as it has committed to do.
- By making sure that the norms and procedures are fully implemented – and followed.
This also will require our patience. We live in an “instant” age, when we want – even expect – everything now. Given how terrible what has happened is and how awful for it to happen again – even once more – feeling the urgency of acting is right and proper. However, it is even more important that we do this right. Usually, doing this right does not mean doing it fast. That is why the whole people of God will need to use the virtues of both patience and perseverance to allow the entire Church to go through this process in a timely way (giving it the priority it needs) to act decisively and correctly. As Cardinal DiNardo stated, “The overarching goal in all of this is stronger protections against predators in the Church and anyone who would conceal them, protections that will hold bishops to the highest standards of transparency and accountability.”
“For in the readings, as explained by the Homily, God speaks to his people, opening up for them the mysteries of redemption and salvation, and offering spiritual nourishment; and Christ himself is present through his word in the midst of the faithful.” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], #55).
On Thursday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time (Year B), the Lord spoke in this way to the Church through the prophet Ezekiel (EZ 36:23-28)
Thus says the LORD:
I will sprinkle clean water upon you
to cleanse you from all your impurities,
and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you,
taking from your bodies your stony hearts
and giving you natural hearts.
I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes,
careful to observe my decrees.
You shall live in the land I gave your ancestors;
you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
The Church is the people of God. Ezekiel reminds us that God is and will reform his people, as he has done throughout history. God will purify his people and purify his Church. Believe it. Trust in God’s faithfulness. And let the Church respond, “Amen!”