Should the Bishops Oversee Child Abuse Cases?

Washington Post: “The U.S. Catholic bishops voted … to create the first national hotline for reporting sexual abuse committed by or mishandled by bishops. But they specified that the hotline send reports directly to other bishops, essentially demanding that the leaders of the scandal-plagued church police themselves instead of turning toward outside authorities.” [Source]

This point is a frequent criticism of the remedy offered by Pope Francis, that Bishops are “investigating themselves”.

First, no Bishop, accused of abuse of a minor, is literally in charge of investigating himself. Rather, one Bishop or the Bishops as a group, are in charge of cases involving clergy or church employees accuse of abuse.

But the Bishops are the successor to the Apostles. When there is a grave problem in the Church, they certainly should be in charge of solving that problem. The Roman Pontiff has created a set of laws for the Vatican and also for the whole Church worldwide, and the Bishops are rightly given the authority to apply those laws, and to oversee this grave matter of great concern to everyone.

Also, the U.S. Bishops have voted to have a lay person be in charge of the actual investigation, someone with the requisite knowledge and skills. So the laity are involved. This person can even be a non-Catholic, such as a former prosecutor with experience in CSA cases.

In addition, there must be a report made to secular authorities for any credible accusation of a crime, so that the secular courts can intervene. The initial or concurrent investigation by the Church is entirely appropriate, since the Church has the right and duty to govern Herself.

The failures and, in a few cases, grave sins, by a minority of Bishop does not justify relieving them of their authority to run the Church and to address serious problems. If that were the case, then every other group would also be disqualified, for the same reason. The priesthood, diaconate, religious life, theologians, scholars, other laity, all have abusers among them and all have serious sins and failures, no less than some Bishops. This idea, that the laity should be in charge (entirely?) of CSA cases, because the Bishops are all suspect is uncatholic.

[1 Cor]
{6:3} Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more the things of this age?

Most Bishops are holy and faithful. The current trend, in the conservative Catholic subculture, to treat almost all Bishops (except a few conservative schismatics) with contempt is malicious, traitorous, faithless, schismatic, and gravely immoral. Of the Twelve Apostles, only Judas fell away. (Peter repented promptly of his sin, and that was before he took office as the first Roman Pontiff.) What Christian, in his right mind and in the state of grace, would abandon faith in all the Apostles, even Peter, merely because Judas fell away (and was replaced by Matthias)?

Lay involvement in CSA cases is useful, and is a part of the U.S. Bishops’ plan. But the Bishops have the right and duty to govern the Church and to oversee the remedy to grave problems like CSA (child sexual abuse).

So the phrasing in the article is that “the leaders of the scandal-plagued church” are policing themselves. The Church is the body of Christ, with the Holy Spirit as Her soul. The Church is ever-pure and ever-holy, like the Blessed Virgin Mary. We must not treat the Church like a political body.

But what happens in politics, for example, in the U.S. Congress, when some members are accused of ethics violations. Other members of Congress, the ethics committee, investigate and report. As long as it is different persons investigating, the whole body is not disqualified from an internal investigation. Police departments have internal investigations. If a corporation has an internal problem, they often address the problem themselves. But of course crimes must be reported to law enforcement and ultimately handled by the courts.

Some are asking if Mr. McCarrick would have been caught by this new set of procedures. He was tried and convicted by the Church, and not (yet) by secular authorities. So that should give us pause when some persons propose that the entire answer to the CSA problem is to turn to outside authorities. They failed to stop McCarrick, and the Church did not fail (ultimately).

I am concerned that an outside company will run the reporting system and turn over the complaints to the Metropolitan Bishop or his appointees. This system could work well. But it could also be misused. Bishops could refuse to listen to victims, on the grounds that the rules say you must report to the outside organization. That would be a grave injustice. The sheep have a right to turn directly to the Shepherds with their complaints.

I also wonder how long it will take for the reports to reach the Metropolitan Bishop, and for action to be taken. The outside company could become an excuse for delays. The Bishops are incentivized to delay dealing with CSA cases, as the Church often ends up paying victims large sums (while other victims go entirely unpaid!). So they could use the third party system to delay dealing with this problem.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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