Bishops have failed to police themselves. It’s time for the laity to step up.
More than 15 years after Americans learned of gross abuse of children by Catholic priests, this week the Vatican hosts its first-ever summit on the “protection of minors.” For four days bishops from across the world will hear victims’ testimony and recommit to eradicating abuse. Pope Francis deserves praise for convening this gathering, but American Catholics should heed his warning last month to “deflate the expectations.”
This week’s summit will cover well-worn ground for the U.S., where reform already has dramatically reduced priestly predation. And there’s no indication it will deal with two related crises that directly bear on the protection of the innocent: unaccountable bishops, and priests who break their vows of celibacy. These problems also demand the Vatican’s full attention.
American Catholics have been grappling with how to prevent abuse since the exposure of grave crimes against minors by priests in the Archdiocese of Boston. It led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 to adopt the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” The Dallas Charter, as it’s known, instituted a zero-tolerance policy for proven abuser priests and mandated immediate removal from ministry of priests credibly accused of abuse. It also ordered the formation of local review boards, run primarily by lay Catholics, to create long-overdue policies and investigate accusations.
The results have been heartening. In 2018 the U.S. bishops’ latest annual report found 373 credible allegations of abuse. Only four took place in 2017, the most recent year with available data. Nearly 90% occurred or began before 2000, shortly before the Dallas Charter was enacted, with nearly 75% occurring between 1960 and 1990. While there will always be more to do to safeguard children, the church is on the path to accountability and healing. Even the recent Pennsylvania grand-jury report and the revelations about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick support this conclusion, as both primarily deal with decades-old abuses. ‘
Yet these disturbing revelations still highlight other issues. While accountability now exists for regular priests, bishops are not subject to the reforms in the Dallas Charter. Outside a court of law, bishops who commit or cover up abuse can be punished only by the pope himself, and it’s logistically challenging for the pope to investigate every potentially offending bishop in the world-wide church. Many escape discipline, as in Pennsylvania, where multiple bishops shuttled predator priests around and none have been held to account. As for Mr. McCarrick, he was a prince of the church who sat on a throne of abuse. While Pope Francis finally defrocked him last week, Mr. McCarrick’s misconduct was apparently widely known by other bishops for years.
Read the rest at the Wall Street Journal