Having recently returned from the Spring Assembly of the bishops of the United States, I offer here a summary of the work done to ensure that any reported accusations of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults by bishops will be followed up in a timely and effective manner.
We assembled bishops approved three documents related to reporting and investigating claims of abuse or the intentional mishandling of these cases by bishops.
One deals with bishops who were removed from office or resigned their office for reasons of sexual abuse or intentional mishandling of cases (Protocols). One reaffirms the commitments bishops make to live according to the Gospel and to place themselves under the same high standards applied to priests, deacons, and lay personnel (Commitments). And the last document deals specifically with the reporting and investigation of complaints against bishops (Directives). It is to this last document that I call your special attention.
You will remember that at the last meeting of bishops in November we intended to promulgate these same three documents. The Holy Father asked that we refrain for the time being — until after the summit that was held in Rome in February. In the meantime the pope issued a new Apostolic Letter “Vos estis lux mundi,” “You Are the Light of the World.” This letter reflects the work that was done at the February summit. It is to this letter that that we bishop gave great attention as we discussed and modified the Directives.
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, established in 2002 by the American bishops, has been shown to be arguably the most comprehensive and effective set of directives for the reporting and investigation of accusations of sexual abuse of minors by priests and deacons. Notably missing from that charter, however, were protocols for handling the same accusations and investigations of bishops. That has now been attended to.
The papal letter provides a mandatory — not voluntary — process for Church investigations of complaints against bishops — not just priests and deacons — for the sexual abuse of minors, as well as acts involving adults regarded as vulnerable (including anyone coerced into sexual acts through an abuse of power). It mandates internal reporting of such cases, offers whistleblower protection for those reporting, and prohibits any imposition of silence on those reporting.
It is especially important to note the mechanisms for reporting sexual misconduct by bishops. A national third-party reporting system for receiving complaints will be set up by the Conference of Bishops. Reports received will be forwarded to the Metropolitan Archbishop of the province where the accused bishop lives. For the Province of Denver it is Archbishop Aquila.
The Metropolitan will make any needed reports to law enforcement, and will undertake a preliminary investigation with the help of qualified lay experts. If it is determined that the accusation(s) are credible, the case will be forwarded to the Holy See. In the case of accused priests and deacons, the investigation and subsequent judgment is done in the diocese. In the case of a bishop, the final disposition must, by law, be made by the Pope.
This system of reporting will not be fully in operation for some months. In the meantime anyone is free to report any sexual misconduct by a bishop directly to the Metropolitan Archbishop or to the Apostolic Nuncio in Washington, D.C., or to the Holy See. In all cases, the provisions of the Code of Canon Law will always be followed.
Even though this process could result in false accusations, the bishops were willing to take that chance for the sake of identifying legitimate complaints. This process could be painful, especially for the falsely accused, but we bishops cannot be above the system. Being open to a fair investigation of accusations will build trust for those exonerated.
As important as these mechanisms are, the only truly effective means of ending the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults is for all clergy to embrace the Church’s teachings on celibacy and chastity and the means to live these fully. Only in this way will the holy Church of God be authentically holy.
Please continue to pray for all deacons, priests and bishops, that we will never turn away from the holiness of life to which we committed ourselves when we were ordained.