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Delay in vote on abuse response proposals a ‘bump in the road’

Vatican requested USSCB delay voting on proposals on standards of episcopal conduct and the formation of commission for reviewing complaints against bishops

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, looked up while holding a press conference Nov. 12 at the bishops’ general assembly in Baltimore.
Photo Credits: Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
BALTIMORE — A Vatican-requested delay in adopting practices that are expected to boost accountability among U.S. bishops in their response to clergy sex abuse is a “bump in the road,” said the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston told reporters Nov. 12 that the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican requested that no vote be taken on the proposals during the bishops’ fall general assembly.

The proposals include standards of episcopal conduct and the formation of a special commission for review of complaints against bishops for violations of the standards.

They are among steps developed by the USCCB Administrative Committee in September in response to the firestorm that has emerged since June over how the bishops handled reports of wayward priests. Several groups held protests outside of the hotel where the bishops were meeting over the course of the three days.

“We have accepted it with disappointment,” Cardinal DiNardo said of the congregation’s request during a midday news conference.

“We have not lessened in any of our resolve for actions. We are going to work intensely on these items of action. We can’t vote on them totally, but clarify them, get them more intensely canonically well, so that Rome will see that. We’re going to keep pushing and moving until we get to a point where they become action,” he said.

“We are ourselves not happy about this,” he continued. “We are working very hard to move to action. We are just at a bump in the road.”

The request from the Vatican congregation cited two reasons for seeking the delay, according to the cardinal.

He said the congregation wanted the bishops to wait until after the upcoming February meeting of the presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world called by Pope Francis to address clergy sex abuse and the need to ensure that the proposals are in line with canon law.

Standards of accountability

On Nov. 13, a series of standards of episcopal accountability for bishops was formally unveiled. When the standards do come up for a vote at a later time, they would require a yes vote from two-thirds of the USCCB membership.

There are seven standards, which deal with: diocesan and eparchial codes of conduct; protection of children and young people; sexual misconduct with an adult by a bishop; sexual harassment of an adult by a bishop; responding to allegations of sexual abuse of minors, or of sexual misconduct with or harassment of adults by priests or deacons; reporting and resolving complaints against bishops; and further commitments to ensure integrity.

There also is an acknowledgment for each bishop to sign, according to a copy of the proposed standards obtained by Catholic News Service.

A proposed commission that would air complaints against bishops in cases of sex abuse or harassment bears similarities to the model of diocesan review boards that hear such allegations against priests.

Details of the full function of the commission continue to be discussed by leaders of the USCCB, but the concept was introduced Nov. 13. The commission would hear reports about bishops who reportedly have failed to comply with the proposed standards of episcopal accountability.

The bishops also discussed the establishment of a hotline devoted to collecting complaints about a bishop’s alleged abuse of a minor, sexual harassment or misconduct involving adults, or his reported failure to respond adequately to those types of complaints.

During the second day of their annual fall assembly, bishops discussed procedures they could use to restrict bishops removed from their position or reassigned due to sexual abuse allegations or “grave negligence in office.”

This protocol can be viewed as a resource for bishops responding to specific cases. It does not offer new penalties or impose an obligation on bishops, said Bishop Robert P. Deeley of Portland, Maine. Bishop Deeley is chairman of the the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance.

“Only the Holy Father can remove a bishop from office,” he said Nov. 13, stressing that the protocols were meant as guidelines pointing out the disciplinary actions that could be taken as part of canon law.

In presenting a report from the National Review Board, chariman Francesco Cesareo challenged the bishops “not to back down” from efforts to improve accountability in responding to clergy sexual abuse.

“They see this as a moment whereby we can potentially have a cultural shift and change,” he said of the all-lay board, which the bishops established in 2002 to oversee compliance with the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”

The report from the National Review Board offered a series of recommendations, including a call to review diocesan and seminary files, archives and clergy personnel records dating to at least 1950 and to make the findings public when possible.

The bishops also heard from abuse survivors, including Luis A. Torres Jr., a member of the Lay Review Board of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. “I witnessed a Church that didn’t understand or didn’t seem to care, or worse, a Church that was actively hostile to the children who had trusted and suffered under its care,” he said.

Next steps forward

Although unable to vote on specific proposals on episcopal accountability standards and other protocols to address the current clerical sex abuse crisis facing U.S. Catholicism, two bishops suggested items on which a consensus could be built among the nation’s bishops.

“We were reminded of the nagging reality of the McCarrick situation and how that weighs heavily right across the country,” said Bishop Deeley, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance during a Nov. 13 news conference following that day’s session of the bishops’ Nov. 12-14 fall general meeting in Baltimore.

“It was interesting to see how the ‘metropolitan in the region’ started to evolve in the discussion,” said Bishop Deeley.

Some bishops began advocating on the floor of the meeting Nov. 13 for a greater role for archbishops, who serve as metropolitans for the regions in which they serve. The archbishop of St. Louis, for example, serves as the metropolitan for all Missouri Latin-rite dioceses. The archbishop of Boston serves as metropolitan for the six states of New England.

Archbishops were being recommended as a possible avenue for being told of allegations against bishops and a starting point for determining the credibility of such allegations; the archbishop also could persuade a bishop to step aside at least temporarily from his diocese as an investigation got underway.

Auxiliary Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of St. Paul and Minneapolis said he sensed a “firmer resolve” among the bishops around a whole range of issues, signaling a “culture change.”

Those issues, Bishop Cozzens added, include the involvement of the laity in a process of investigating allegations.

Dennis Sadowski, Mark Pattison, Julie Asher, Carol Zimmerman and Rhina Guidos contributed to this report.

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