Originally published in USA Today.
Rarely do Americans pay attention to the biannual assemblies of the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, but the gathering that starts on Tuesday in Baltimore will be different.
Millions of people, Catholic and not, are asking the same question: What new steps will the bishops take to clean up — or clean out — the church after years of sex abuse scandals?
This is a question the bishops take seriously. At its meeting last November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was ready to vote on measures that would increase accountability for church leaders. While the Vatican intervened at the 11th hour, it did so because it was preparing to release reforms of its own, which were unveiled in May.
The Vatican’s new policy is a big step in the right direction. Rome has also been working much closer with the U.S. church to penalize bad actors. But America’s bishops should see it as a starting point, not the final word. Building on Pope Francis’ good actions, the USCCB should pass long overdue reforms that give regular Catholics — known as “lay Catholics” — a greater role in keeping bishops and priests accountable.
Regular Catholics have historically been held at arm’s length by the bishops, even though the church has called for our role to be expanded in recent years. Yet regular Catholics are especially well-suited to holding the church’s leaders accountable. We have no institutional incentive to cover up sins and crimes, and we want the church to be healthy and holy.
The pope’s new policy provides a path forward. It explicitly allows the bishops to involve regular Catholics in investigations of church leaders. The USCCB can take this a step further by requiring that bishops bring regular Catholics into the investigative process.
The U.S. church already has a mechanism that can be modified for this purpose. More than 15 years ago, the bishops ordered the creation of “lay review boards” in every American diocese, charging them with the investigation of accusations of sexual abuse of minors by priests. If regular Catholics can help hold priests accountable, surely we can do the same for bishops. The bishops themselves increasingly want this.
Since the Vatican’s new policy puts investigations in the hands of regional archbishops, the USCCB should mandate that lay review boards assist every inquiry. If the archbishop himself is under investigation, the lay review board should be empowered to support whomever the Vatican appoints in his place. The bishops could also establish a new lay review board that includes representatives of all dioceses in the relevant geographic area or a national lay review board to handle all investigations, period.
Any of these options would give regular Catholics an opportunity to ensure the accuracy and exhaustiveness of any investigation. That’s what Catholics want — and that’s what the church needs.
Beyond accountability for themselves, the bishops should also give lay review boards the authority to investigate the full range of allegations against regular priests. Now, the boards cover only the abuse of minors, yet priests have also been known to abuse their power with older individuals. There’s strong evidence that priests who target teenagers also go after young adults (and vice versa). The allegations against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, defrocked by the Vatican earlier this year, are perhaps the best known examples.
Given this fact, regular Catholics should be able to investigate all priests accused of breaking their vows of celibacy. It would be one more layer of protection for minors and vulnerable people.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is all but guaranteed to consider new reforms when it meets in Baltimore this week. There are hopeful signs it will give regular Catholics a greater role.
Now is the time for action and answers. America is watching and waiting for the bishops to do the right thing.
Tim Busch is founder of the Napa Institute, a Catholic lay organization.
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