The USCCB Agenda and How to Improve It

On Monday, Bishops from across the country will gather at their headquarters in Baltimore to discuss, among other things, the current state of the clergy sex abuse crisis. Yesterday, a detailed piece from J.D. Flynn in the National Catholic Register has pointed out some significant issues with the proposed agenda.

As Cardinal DiNardo and his fellow bishops come together to discuss a path forward, special attention will be paid to the issue of accountability for bishops who conceal sex crimes. According to the Register, the bishops plan to discuss a proposed Code of Conduct as well as changes to their internal reporting and investigative commissions.

Regarding the former, it is difficult to understand why the simple moral imperative of “do not sexually harass or abuse other adults or children” must be codified to be understood. Similarly, it is impossible to believe that adding such language to a code of conduct will result in real change. Bishops are intelligent men with massive power and influence. It stands to reason that the vast majority of these men already know that sexual abuse is wrong, but history shows that they also prefer to protect the reputations of their institution and themselves, first. It is also critical to point out that breaking the code of conduct may have consequences that sound good on paper but are unlikely to be enforceable. If the Vatican has so far failed to properly adjudicate any bishop who has concealed sex crimes, such Cardinal Bernard Law, then how are we to expect that a new code of conduct would make a difference? The answer is we cannot.

When thinking about the latter, it is good that bishops recognize that change must come in terms of how reports of sexual abuse are received and investigated. Yet rather than establish new lay commissions and add more responsibility to the apostolic nuncio, we suggest that bishops actually do away with any sort of internal reporting and instead pass any and all reports on to local law enforcement. No institution, whether it is a church, a university, or a sports governing body can properly investigate itself, regardless of the number of lay commissioners or their qualifications. The fact is that any report of a crime or potential crime should be turned over to those that our society has empowered to be responsible for investigation and punishment: the legal system.

It is clear that change is needed. What is not clear is why Cardinal DiNardo and his colleagues believe that the proposed changes will adequately address the concerns shared by survivors, parishioners, and the public. We recognize that the task set before the USCCB is a massive one. In order to help, we have some suggestions.

First, do away with the idea of a code of conduct. It is insulting to the intelligence of Catholics and citizens to pretend that such a code will result in any real change.

Second, bishops should recognize that while they may be extremely knowledgeable about dogma, they are babes in the wood when it comes to prevention. They should partner with a nationally renowned organization such as Darkness to Light and invest in extensive sexual abuse prevention training. Such training and education will help bishops recognize their crucial role in preventing future sex abuse cases from happening and will help them develop real responses and systems.

Third, instead of focusing on developing internal systems, bishops should add their voice and energy to strengthening the laws and external systems that are already in place. For one, they can pledge to stop lobbying against statutes of limitation reform and instead support new laws and policies that will allow survivors to have their day in court. Additionally, they should actively invite outside investigations by attorneys general and allow unfettered access to documents, files, computers, and properties.

This year’s meeting of the USCCB is a critical one. Bishops have a real chance to show that they are taking this scandal seriously. As it stands, we fear that the agenda is one that is ostensibly about prevention and reform but actually about obfuscation and reputation protection.

We hope against hope that we are wrong.

Contact: Zach Hiner, Executive Director (zhiner@snapnetwork.org, 517-974-9009)

(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)


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  • Richard Kensinger, MSW
    commented 2018-11-11 13:25:19 -0600
    Sadly, I am pessimistic about any real momentum coming out of this conference. I will closely watch the behavior of Bishop Mark Bartchack of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. Based on all that I see and hear, he is awfully quiet about this scandal. And issues around Brother Stephen Baker remain unresolved. I am also quite curious about the knowledge he gained from those “secret files” upon his appointment here? This diocese implemented a victim compensation fund in 1999. This preceded Mark’s appointment here.

    46 of the 50 perpetrators mentioned in the AG report are clergy. The two prior bishops were involved in massive cover-up, and so were some local attorneys and law enforcement officers.
    Rich, MSW

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