I want to report to you on the meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops held in Baltimore, Maryland, June 11-14, 2019. At the Vatican this past February, Pope Francis convened a meeting of all the presidents of the bishops’ conferences of the world to continue the Church’s work of dealing with the matter of sexual abuse. The fruit of this meeting was the promulgation of regulations for the universal Church in a document called Vos estis lux mundi (Vos estis). It outlines action to be taken regarding bishops who are guilty of sexual misconduct, bishops whose action or failure to take action interferes with civil or church investigation of accusations of sexual misconduct, and the manner in which accusations can be made against bishops. Much of the work at our June meeting dealt with this new law and applying it in the Church of the United States.
Continuing the work to hold bishops accountable, we discussed and adopted the document: “Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundi Concerning Bishops and their Equivalents.” These Directives are not legislation binding every bishop but are a statement of the conference indicating how bishops of the United States ought to implement Vos estis which is law. Vos estis establishes that reports against bishops can be made to the Metropolitan Archbishop. Our current Metropolitan Archbishop is Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The archbishop is responsible for meeting any requirements of reporting to civil authorities, for conducting a church investigation of the matter and of reporting to the Holy See through the Papal Nuncio in Washington, D.C.
At the June meeting, the bishops of Region VIII (Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota) met to work with Archbishop Hebda on putting in place what is needed to implement Vos estis in our region. For example, Vos estis indicates that an archbishop may involve lay people to assist in processing accusations. The directives we adopted call for the involvement of qualified lay persons to assist in investigating accusations and evaluating results. And so, the bishops of Region VIII will establish a list of qualified lay persons in the region to call upon for this work.
Another action we took at the June meeting was establishing a Third-Party Reporting System. This system will provide another way for people to report the misconduct of bishops outlined in the new universal law of the Church. We authorized the Executive Committee of the USCCB to immediately begin establishing this nation-wide, confidential reporting system for accepting accusations by phone or email of the misconduct of bishops mentioned in Vos estis.
Another agenda item was the discussion and approval of the document: “Protocol Regarding Available Non-Penal Restrictions on Bishops.” This document outlines actions already found in canon law and other church documents by which a diocesan bishop may restrict the public ministry of a bishop emeritus in the church “… where a bishop emeritus’ resignation or removal was due to the sexual abuse of a minor, sexual misconduct with an adult or grave negligence of office, or where subsequent to his resignation he was found by competent ecclesiastical authority to have so acted or failed to act.”
We bishops feel the steps we took at our June meeting are steps in the right direction, good steps which will help victims and help the Church be what Jesus established us to be and wants us to be. At the meeting, we adopted the statement: “Affirming Our Episcopal Commitments.” By adopting this statement, we affirmed once more our commitment to respond directly and appropriately to cases of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable persons, sexual misconduct, and the mishandling of such cases by bishops. There are 10 points to our statement re-affirming our commitment; if you are interested in reading more, you can find them at a new website: usccbprevention.org.
I hope you can take heart, as I do, in the progress that is being made as we deal with the issue of sexual abuse and the Church in our day. We don’t forget that the Church is made up of saints and sinners. We hold two teachings about the Church at once: The Church is beautiful as the spotless Bride of Jesus and the Church is imperfect in its human members. We thank God for the saints, including the majority of great priests and bishops who give of themselves in love to feed and serve the People of God. We pray for sinners and the forgiveness of sins, we pray in sorrow for sins committed, and we ask forgiveness from those harmed.
May God continue helping us reach out to victims and continue working for a healthier, holier Church, all while praising God for the life that comes to us through God’s family, Holy Mother Church.