As US bishops gather in Baltimore to again take up abuse crisis, survivors and advocates demand an embrace of secular investigations
Six months ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) met in Baltimore amidst a cascade of revelations about abuse and cover-up. They were poised to fulfill dramatic promises to American Catholics and the public to hold themselves accountable and transparent.
Instead, they did not enact any meaningful reform and failed to deliver on any of those promises. In the months following that failed meeting, Church officials – including Pope Francis – have spoken of the importance of reform. This week the bishops once again have addressing the abuse scandal at the top of their schedule.
The two likely measures the bishops will pass this week include setting up a nationwide "hotline" for information on misconduct by bishops and adopting the "Metropolitan" model to investigate themselves. Both of these measures are deeply flawed and unlikely to result in the change that parishioners and the public have demanding.
Any reform that leaves the ultimate authority for investigating abuse and cover up in the hands of Church officials instead of secular law enforcement is no reform at all. Rather, it is the continuation of how bishops have responded to cases of sex abuse since 2002, just updated and codified as a new policy. Yet new policies and declarations that do not make secular and independent investigations central to their design will never succeed.
Church officials promised in 2002 that “fraternal correction” would be the bulwark that would keep bishops in line. Instead, we have had two more decades of failure to curb sexual abuse. We continue to see – as recently as last week – high ranking Church officials ignoring their own protocols in cases of clergy abuse.
The bishops’ way of internal policing has been a disaster. Internal investigations are a cancer that allows and enables abuse and cover up. More of the same will not remedy the problem.
So, what does work? What kind of change is needed that will lead to a cure?
We believe the answer is secular involvement and investigations. The substantial and historic progress that has been made in the past six months has been due to ongoing revelations, investigations, and prosecutions by criminal and civil authorities. Nearly 20 states and the Department of Justice are now actively investigating clergy abuse. Several investigations – including those in Michigan and New Jersey – have already resulted in arrests. Several others have seized documents and records related to Church-led responses to cases of abuse, helping to pry back the veil of secrecy and force the transparency that bishops have promised since 2002.
Catholic and public mistrust in the bishops is at one of its highest points in modern US history. In order to rebuild that trust, we need to see the bishops at this week’s USCCB meeting embrace independent, secular investigations, not further retreating into internal policing.
(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)