U.S. Bishops’ New Accountability Protocols Defy Accountability

Sometimes a headline describes an issue better than the story. Take this one from Thursday’s article in American Magazine about bishop accountability protocols regarding sexual abuse adopted by U.S. Catholic bishops this week in Baltimore:

“U.S. bishops adopt new protocols for holding themselves accountable for sex abuse”

The story highlights how the bishops’ new protocols are designed to ensure transparency and impartiality in dealing with sexual abuse and abuse cover-up by U.S. bishops, problems which have been secretly handled in-house by bishops and the Vatican for decades with disastrous results. The ironic headline conveys that the measures are just more lip service designed to distract from more of the same systemic behavior.

A new Vatican law—detailed by Pope Francis in his document “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” issued in May—requires bishops worldwide to create processes aimed at ensuring bishop accountability with regard to sexual abuse. In response to it, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted this week to create a third-party reporting hotline for reporting allegations of sexual abuse and abuse cover-up against bishops. They also voted to adopt a procedure for receiving those allegations and including laypeople to investigate them.

One new protocol the bishops adopted provides that metropolitan bishops, who oversee other bishops in a geographical area, “should” appoint qualified laypersons to receive reports from the hotline about bishop misconduct. If a report is found credible and the Vatican orders an investigation into a bishop, the metropolitan bishop “should” appoint a lay investigator. Neither the new Vatican law nor the U.S. bishops’ new provisions REQUIRE involvement of laypersons in these bishop accountability processes.

That means survivors are most likely going to face the same old, same old: bishops policing themselves in secrecy; “holding themselves accountable” but not in a good way. It’s worth noting that these new provisions by the U.S. bishops addressing their own abuse and cover-ups come 17 long years after they enacted the Dallas Charter to hold priests accountable for sexually abusing children.

After decades of proclamations by bishops about finally doing the right thing to protect kids instead of themselves, we remain skeptical that these new measures will change the status quo of self- motivated secrecy and cover up. There are just too many ongoing examples to ignore.

Requiring the involvement of lay persons in receiving and investigating reports of bishop misconduct would help ensure honesty and transparency, and increase the likelihood of law enforcement involvement when sexual abuse, abuse cover-up and other crimes by bishops are suspected. Until this happens, bishops will continue to be accountable only to themselves and other bishops at the expense of survivors.