The US Catholic bishops’ conference issued a dramatic apology on Wednesday for the role of bishops in the church’s clergy sexual abuse scandal and announced new initiatives to hold abusive or negligent bishops accountable.
“Some bishops, by their actions or their failures to act, have caused great harm to both individuals and the Church as a whole,” said the administrative committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a statement.
“They have used their authority and power to manipulate and sexually abuse others. They have allowed the fear of scandal to replace genuine concern and care for those who have been victimized by abusers.”
The statement from the US Catholic bishops’ conference comes a week after its leadership met with Pope Francis at the Apostolic Palace in Rome. In a statement after the meeting, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the bishops’ conference, called it a “lengthy, fruitful and good exchange.”
But in recent weeks most of the news surrounding the Catholic Church has been far from good.
The church is facing abuse scandals on several continents, with its epicenter in the United States. American Catholics are reeling from a series of scandals beginning with the surprise announcement in July that a leading American cardinal had been credibly accused of abusing a minor.
That scandal, which led to Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s demotion from the prestigious College of Cardinals, has been followed by a series of equally damning accusations, from a Pennsylvania grand jury report that found widespread evidence of sexual abuse and cover ups, to the announcement last Thursday that Pope Francis has ordered an investigation into a West Virginia bishop who has been accused of sexually harassing adults.
DiNardo himself is also facing accusations that he mishandled a complaint against a Catholic priest in Texas in 2010.
“This is a time of deep examination of conscience for each bishop,” the bishops’ administrative committee said on Wednesday. “We cannot content ourselves that our response to sexual assault within the Church has been sufficient.”
The administrative committee at the bishops conference is composed of about 25-30 members, including the president and top leadership, the chairs of bishops’ committees and regional representatives. Typically, the committee sets the agenda for the bishops’ semiannual meetings, when new polices are debated and voted on.
McCarrick is the only American archbishop mentioned by name in the statement. The committee said it “supported a full investigation into the situation” surrounding him, “including his alleged assaults on minors, priests, and seminarians as well as other matters regarding the current crisis.”
McCarrick has denied the accusation about the minor and is appealing his removal from ministry at the Vatican. He has not responded to the allegations about the seminarian.
Notably, the bishops’ statement makes no mention of the possibility of a Vatican-led investigation into McCarrick, which DiNardo had said he would seek from Pope Francis. A Vatican spokesman has not responded to requests for information from CNN.
Even without the Pope’s approval, the US bishops can take several steps on their own. On Wednesday, they announced they had:
1. Approved a “third-party reporting system” to receive confidential complaints of sexual abuse of minors by a bishop, and sexual harassment of or sexual misconduct with adults by a bishop, and will direct those complaints to civil authorities and the “appropriate” church authorities. Those authorities are not named in the statement.
2. Ordered a committee at the bishops’ conference to develop proposals for policies “addressing restrictions on bishops who were removed or resigned because of allegations of sexual abuse of minors or sexual harassment of or misconduct with adults, including seminarians and priests.”
3. Begun the process of developing a “code of conduct” for bishops regarding the sexual abuse of a minor by a bishop; sexual harassment of, or misconduct with an adult by a bishop; or “negligence of a bishop in the exercise of his office related to such cases.”
4. Agreed to support a full investigation into McCarrick, with help from lay experts in relevant fields, such as law enforcement and social services.
“This is only a beginning. Consultation with a broad range of concerned parents, experts, and other laity along with clergy and religious will yield additional, specific measures to be taken to repair the scandal and restore justice,” the bishops said in their statement.