BALTIMORE – Under intense public pressure, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops approved new steps this week to deal more strongly with the clergy sex-abuse crisis. But activists and others say the moves leave the bishops in charge of policing themselves and potentially keep law enforcement at arm's length.
As their national meeting in Baltimore concluded Thursday, leaders of the U.S. bishops conference stopped short of mandating that lay experts such as lawyers and criminal justice professionals take part in investigating clergy accused of child molestation or other misconduct. They also did not specify a procedure for informing police of abuse allegations that come in over a newly proposed hotline.
“Even the bishops themselves recognize they have lost their credibility in monitoring this dreadful crisis,” said Thomas Groome, a professor at Boston College's School of Theology. “Without strong oversight by competent lay people, it won't be seen as credible.”
The meeting followed a string of abuse-related developments that have presented the bishops and the 76 million-member U.S. church with unprecedented challenges.
Many dioceses around the country have been targeted by prosecutors demanding secret files, and a number of high-ranking church officials have become entangled in cases of alleged abuse or cover-ups.
Of the anti-abuse measures approved by the bishops during three days of deliberations, the most tangible was the planned creation of a national hotline – to be operated by a yet-to-be-chosen independent entity – to field allegations of abuse and cover-ups by bishops.
Another measure specifies that the bishops will now be governed by the same code of conduct that has applied to priests since 2002. It outlines a variety of procedures for combating child sexual abuse and says even a single act of abuse should lead to a priest's permanent removal from the ministry.
During Thursday's debate, Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, urged that lay involvement in investigations be made mandatory, “to make darn sure we bishops do not harm the church.”
SNAP, a national advocacy group for victims of clergy abuse, expressed dismay that the bishops did not mandate lay involvement or spell out a policy for notifying law enforcement.