WASHINGTON — The firestorm surrounding the clergy sex abuse and the way some bishops handled allegations of abuse against priests will be an important part of the agenda of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall general assembly.
The bishops have dealt with allegations of abusive clergy since June, most of which referred to long-past incidents. New reports from media outlets also were expected as the Nov. 12-14 assembly in Baltimore approaches.
Bishops nationwide also are facing new challenges as several state attorneys general have opened investigations into the handling of abuse allegations. The investigations follow the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report in August that linked more than 300 priests and Church workers to abuse claims and identified more than 1,000 victims over a 70-year period dating from 1947.
The USCCB has not directly addressed the investigations and has not offered any indication that it will advise bishops on how to respond.
Beyond the discussions of clergy sexual abuse and any further actions, the bishops are expected to vote on a new pastoral letter on racism, though the agenda for the meeting has not been finalized.
In preparing for the fall assembly, the bishops’ Administrative Committee Sept. 19 outlined actions to address the abuse crisis, including approving the establishment of a third-party confidential reporting system for claims of any abuse by bishops.
Committee members instructed the bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance to develop proposals for policies addressing restrictions on bishops who were removed or resigned because of allegations of abuse of minors or adults.
The Administrative Committee also initiated the process of developing a code of conduct for bishops regarding sexual misconduct with a minor or adult or “negligence in the exercise of his office related to such cases.”
The Administrative Committee consists of the officers, chairmen and regional representatives of the USCCB. The committee, which meets in March and September, is the highest authority of the USCCB outside of the full body of bishops when they meet for their fall and spring general assemblies.
Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board, declined to discuss specific plans for the assembly, writing Oct. 16 that board members were continuing to draft recommendations that would be delivered to the bishops during the assembly.
In August, Cesareo told Catholic News Service that the bishops “have to put their trust in lay leadership and allow that lay leadership to develop the processes and oversight when these kinds of allegations occur, particularly holding bishops accountable.”
The all-lay National Review Board, established by the bishops in 2002, oversees compliance by dioceses with the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” It has no role in oversight of bishops.
Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, Vt., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Communications, told Catholic News Service Oct. 19 that the bishops must “continue to press forward” in explaining how well the charter “is working and continues to work.”
“It is important that we as a conference have made incredible strides in protecting children to the point that one of the safest places for children to participate is the Catholic community in the United States,” he said.
“But that message is not getting out there. Many people still believe that the abuse of children and the cover-up by Church authorities is an ongoing issue and that the bishops haven’t done enough to address the issue. That’s contrary to the evidence in contrast to the number of reported abuses since 2002,” Bishop Coyne said.
“We have to continually say the charter is working and doing its job.”
Bishop Coyne also said he would recommend that dioceses voluntarily open their clergy personnel files — including those of bishops — to investigators.
“We all do it and it’s done,” he said.