Senior church officials meeting in Rome are discussing a potentially groundbreaking proposal designed to hold bishops accountable for mishandling sexual abuse cases.
The issue has been one of the main points of frustration for survivors, who say the U.S. church has adopted stricter standards for priests but has never embraced accountability for bishops, who are answerable only to the pope.
Church leaders in the U.S., where the sex abuse scandal has deepened in recent months, recognize that must change.
“We have to be able to confront our sinfulness and not ignore or sweep it under the carpet,” said Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had hoped to adopt reforms at its annual meeting in Baltimore last November, but the Vatican asked them to hold off for this February summit on the protection of minors.
Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich brought the U.S. proposal to the pope’s international summit, where 190 church leaders from around the world are participating in a four-day conference on the abuse issue.
The plan Cupich outlined would empower metropolitan archbishops to investigate bishops in their regions who are accused of negligence or misconduct. They would rely on input from lay experts and would ultimately make a recommendation to the pope as to the outcome.
At present, although cardinals and archbishops have seniority over bishops in neighboring dioceses, they do not supervise them.
“I and everyone else has to be held accountable,” Cardinal Cupich told reporters in Rome. “And I really believe that.”
The United States has had two high profile cases in recent months in which cardinals were accused of wrongdoing.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl resigned as Archbishop of Washington, D.C., after a Pennsylvania grand jury report was harshly critical of his handling abuse cases in Pennsylvania when he was Bishop of Pittsburgh.
Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, also of Washington, was defrocked last week after a Vatican tribunal found him guilty of sexual misconduct with a minor decades ago.
In both cases, reformers argue, a clearly defined procedure for investigating senior clerics would likely have removed them from their posts more quickly and with greater transparency.
The proposed reforms may not satisfy critics, who say the bishops put too much emphasis on collegiality, and not enough on accountability.
“It’s all ‘Brother bishop’ this and ‘Brother bishop’ that,” said Virginia Saldanha, a theologian and activist from Mumbai, India. “I feel they just don’t get it because they live in a bubble.”