More than 15 years after the American people awoke to the gross abuse of children by Catholic priests, this week the Vatican will host its first-ever summit to discuss the “protection of minors.” Over the course of 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 also 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 led to a dramatic decline in priestly predation. And there’s no indication the conference will deal with two related crises that directly bear on the protection of the innocent: unaccountable bishops and priests who break celibacy. These problems also demand the Vatican’s full attention, and everyday Catholics deserve a greater hand in solving them.
American Catholics have been grappling with how to prevent abuse ever 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 <https://bit.ly/2Sp7w6U >, as it’s known, instituted a zero-tolerance policy for proven abusers and mandated the immediate removal from ministry of priests credibly accused of abuse. It also ordered the formation of local review boards, run primarily by everyday, or “lay,” Catholics, to create long overdue policies and investigate accusations.
The results have been heartening. In 2018 the U.S. bishops’ latest annual report <https://bit.ly/2JpeCYo> found 373 credible allegations of abuse in the nation’s dioceses. Only four took place in 2017, the most recent year with available data.. Nearly 90% occurred or began before the year 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 only be punished by the pope himself, but it’s logistically challenging for the pope to investigate every potentially offensive bishop in the worldwide 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, escaping serious discipline for decades even as other bishops apparently knew of his actions.
These incidents also indicate a link between some priests who break their vows of celibacy and those who abuse minors. The main focus of these scandals has rightly been the abuse of young children, but it’s also true that most victims in Pennsylvania were teenagers. Some priests who targeted young men and women undoubtedly targeted legal adults, which is exactly what Mr. McCarrick did. While the percentage of non-celibate priests has likely dropped from the 50% estimated in the 1990s, the faithful should still be deeply concerned.Bishop accountability and priestly celibacy concern Catholic practice, not criminal acts, but they cannot be excluded from any discussion of the protection of minors. Unfortunately the Vatican has shown little interest in addressing these issues—and even has stood in the way of reform. Last November, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops tried to vote on measures to hold bishops accountable, the Vatican intervened, asking the conference to delay any action until after this week’s summit.Regardless of what happens in the coming days, the American bishops should advance specific measures to enhance bishop accountability and encourage priestly celibacy. The successful Dallas Charter should be their model.Lay review boards, which gave parishioners a meaningful role in the protection of their children, are critical. But these boards have no jurisdiction over priests accused of abusing individuals over the age of 18, nor can they examine complaints against prelates. These restrictions should be lifted, empowering boards to investigate allegations involving bishops, seminaries and priests who forsake their vows. The laity would then work within the church to promote accountability, repentance and holiness at every level of the priesthood.Such reforms keep with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which declared that everyday Catholics are “co-workers” in the church’s mission whose role must be “broadened and intensified.” Whatever expectations the faithful have heading into the summit, we must continue to pray for a greater role in our church.
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