USCCB Reform Will Fail Without Complete Transparency and Lay Involvement

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has now formally agreed to the “Metropolitan Plan,” a proposed measure for accountability for bishops.

This plan is ostensibly a new policy designed to ensure bishops are held accountable for mishandling cases of clergy sex abuse. But while the policy is new, the tenets are old: this model would rely on internal reporting of impropriety, internal investigation into those claims, and internal punishments to be meted out.

The glaring and obvious flaw in every one of these measures is that they do not require, much less acknowledge, that all allegations of misconduct should be forwarded immediately to civil law enforcement in whatever state these alleged acts have occurred. This includes any information obtained by the new “third person” hotline that has been created.

As it stands, church officials have so far refused to mandate lay involvement – instead leaving it up to each Metropolitan to decide – and have not yet said if every allegation received will be routed to police. Without these mandates, there is no guarantee that reports will be routed to police and investigations will be transparent and public. Instead, all reports can remain secret and insulated within the church’s internal systems.

Clergy abuse survivors and advocates have for years been asking for some system of reporting bishops that does not rely on internal church structures. While the Metropolitan model allows for reporting of wrongdoing by bishops, it is only a half-measure. To make this model credible:

  1. Every metropolitan must have a truly independent lay review board. While the USCCB itself was not willing to include the word “must” in its directive to bishops on the inclusion of lay people in investigations, Metropolitans can and must go beyond this policy and mandate the inclusion of laypeople in their diocesan review boards.
  2. Review boards must be augmented to include at least one clergy abuse survivor, chosen from clergy abuse organizations. Survivors have a unique perspective into both the effects of abuse and how abuse occurs and as such would make valuable additions to review boards.
  3. Each Metropolitan must receive from the Attorney General of each state a list of recommended investigators and review board members for inclusion and select two nominees from that list. Officials often tout the law enforcement expertise of volunteers on diocesan review boards, so they should have no problem to involve their state’s top law enforcement official in selecting appropriate persons for the board.
  4. Every Metropolitan investigation involving a prelate should take place in a locale far from the area where the complaint originated. For example, if a bishop in Florida were to be investigated, rather than let the nearby Metropolitan investigate the case it should instead be undertaken by a Metropolitan on the other side of the country in an effort to reduce conflict of interest and prevent close relationships compromising an investigation. So far, in the most major example of a Metropolitan investigation, we saw Archbishop William Lori scrub his name and that of other church officials from his final report into wrongdoing by Bishop Michael Bransfield. If such a conflict has arisen already, surely more will follow.
  5. To assure transparency and accountability, investigations and lay review reports and rulings with proper redactions to protect victims and whistleblowers must be released to the public.

It is high time that a system be established to handle allegations of misconduct by bishops. The Metropolitan model is not what we would have suggested, but if this is the only option we have, then it be incumbent upon us to offer suggestions on how it can be minimally improved. 

Even if these suggestions are adopted, the first and most important option that church officials need to promote on and insist upon is that anyone with information and evidence of abuse or cover up by bishops, church officials or clerics should first and foremost make a report with secular criminal and civil authorities. 

CONTACT: Becky Ianni, SNAP Board Member (703-801-6044, [email protected]), Zach Hiner, Executive Director (517-974-9009, [email protected]), Peter Isely, Founder, ECA Global (414-429-7259, [email protected])

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