The ring of Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J., is seen during morning prayer at the spring general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore June 13, 2019. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Many of you already know that the US Catholic bishops gathered in Baltimore this week for three days of meetings. Upper most in our prayer and hearts, as well as our agenda –  taking concrete actions to hold bishops accountable for sexual misconduct and irresponsible governance.

Before getting to those actions, I wish to draw attention to other matters of business which were addressed:

  • approved a revised passage on the death penalty for the US Catholic Catechism
  • expressed support to continue to advance on local level the cause for canonization of Servant of God Irving (Francis) C. House from the Diocese of Marquette
  • approved a new translation of the Rite for the Ordination of a Bishop, of Priests, and of Deacons
  • approved a 2nd edition of the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States
  • updated / approved development of videos and letters to accompany the document: Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship
  • approved the proposed new priorities for USCCB Strategic Plan 2021-2024
  • discussed desire to reach and attract those individuals / young adults disaffiliating from the faith

As you can see, we had much to discuss and vote on during these days.

Without a doubt, the eyes of our people were most intently focused on our deliberations and actions with regards to addressing the sexual abuse of minors – and most particularly how to hold bishops accountable for bad actions and for inaction in the face of this urgent need.

First, it is important to note that this meeting would have had a much different atmosphere and few accomplishments if Pope Francis had not taken the considerable actions he has since the USCCB last met in November. I continue to be most grateful for Pope Francis, and the true gift of his motu proprio, Vos estis lux mundi. (You are the light of the world.)

A motu proprio is an apostolic letter of a legislative nature which modifies or adds to church law (canon law). The term translates “of his own initiative” – referring in this case to Pope Francis’ initiative.  Such a document applies to the universal law of the church.

Herein lies an important concept which many people have been slow to understand. While there has been much heart burn in this past year about the bishops’ seeming lack of resolve or ability to address the sinful and criminal behavior and poor governance of some bishops, the reality remains that by church law, only the Holy Father can investigate or discipline a bishop. With Vos estis, Pope Francis gave the universal church a document clearly enhancing church law for the present and urgent need.

Many people have also, and rightly called for more involvement of the laity in this process.  Some claim that Vos estis falls short on several accounts, namely that:

  • it is merely another way to deal with the issue of clergy abuse with an ‘internal church document’ (bishops policing bishops)
  • it falls short of requiring the use of lay experts
  • it falls short of mandating all reports of abuse be reported to law enforcement

There is a balance at work in the motu proprio because it applies to the universal church, which is composed of many different cultures, and legal structures.  Church law respects the theological and ecclesial understanding of the role of bishops, and thus must work within that framework.

However, the motu proprio also requires every episcopal conference of bishops to implement the new norms in a manner that is best suited to their local circumstances. This is what we did during this week’s USCCB meeting in Baltimore.

Church teaching also spells out and calls for the laity to take up their rightful role in the life of the church. I believe most of our bishops truly appreciate the many gifts of our lay people, and we are particularly grateful for their expertise and we already work closely with various experts who serve on our Review Boards. We will most certainly continue to look to qualified lay experts in many different fields to assist us as we now move forward with this latest and needed church law to hold bishops accountable.

The measures now in place also addresses the concerns that we are somehow going to avoid reporting accusations of criminal behavior of bishops to local law enforcement – this is no longer a serious possibility.  We are already across the country acting as mandated reporters any and every time we are made aware of accusations of criminal misconduct with minors and vulnerable adults.

What we did this week now includes and holds bishops and their equivalents to the same standards of all clergy and lay employees and volunteers.

These are the actions taken this week to address bishops’ accountability:

  • approved Protocol Regarding Available Non-Penal Restrictions on bishops
  • approved a new document Acknowledging Our Episcopal Commitments
  • approved a national Third-Party Reporting System
    • this will be implemented no later than May 31, 2020
  • approved  Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux Mundi Concerning Bishops and their Equivalents
    • allows for reporting of complaints of sexual abuse and the intentional mishandling of sexual abuse.
    • these reports will then be passed along to a lay ecclesial officer designated in each metropolitan (geographic area). This person will then notify law enforcement, the metropolitan archbishop and the nuncio.
    • NOTE: the metropolitan will then seek delegation from the Holy See to conduct an investigation. The Holy See will also receive the results of the investigation, as only the Holy See can investigate (in this case by delegation) and judge individual cases of misconduct of bishops.

While I am pleased with the results of our deliberations and actions this week, there is still much work ahead. Most importantly, we will need to be diligent in our efforts. We must continue to root out any and all attitudes of clerical privilege – beginning with our seminary formation programs.

Similarly, we will need in time to put in place measures for assessing how well we are following these new norms – all with the assistance of qualified and independent lay professionals.

You will note the photo for this entry is one of prayer. As Pope Francis understood early on, prayer is required to make sure that our response in moments of crisis is coming from true and genuine discernment, and not just a knee-jerk and immediate reaction.

Thank you for your prayers during this past year, and please, let us all continue to call upon the Lord for the gifts of the Holy Spirit to rid this church of the scourge of sexual abuse.  May we continue to walk together, prayerfully as we work to heal the wounds of the Body of Christ and renew this church we all love.


(I hope in the coming days to add links to the final drafts of the key documents that were approved in Baltimore this week.). In the meantime, there is much good news to report with regards to the fine work of the Catholic Church in the United States – and universally – to address the crime of clergy abuse of minors and vulnerable adults. You are invited to visit a new website of the USCCB which provides much encouraging data in this regard.