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.