Saturday, May 11, 2019

Pope Francis’ move on abuse leaves out the vital role of lay Catholics

By JD Flynn
May 9, 2019

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Pope Francis on Thursday introduced the Catholic Church’s most comprehensive plan yet for dealing with bishops accused of sexual abuse or negligence. While the plan is a step forward, it doesn’t ­address lay ­involvement, procedural transparency or outside accountability. The US bishops can address these shortcomings — and should.
The plan, Vos Estis Lux Mundi (“You Are the Light of the World”), is the first major policy document to be issued since former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s history of abuse came to light last summer. The plan addresses several questions brought to light by the McCarrick scandal: It requires bishops to report the sexual misconduct of their colleagues, it protects whistleblowers inside the church and it makes clear that bishops who neglect their civil or church responsibilities to report or address abuse will be held accountable.
Most important, the plan recognizes explicitly that imbalances of power can be exploited for sexual coercion, and it censures those who abuse their positions of influence and trust.
McCarrick, who serially coerced seminarians and young priests and used his credibility as a priest to abuse minors, isn’t the only recent figure to wield influence for sexual gratification. Pope Francis’ plan takes seriously the lessons about power and consent learned from the misdeeds of figures in Hollywood, tech, politics and other realms of life.
The church’s plan, in that sense, is a step other institutions would do well to imitate.
The plan deviates, though, from proposals the US bishops have made for dealing with abuse or negligence among their ranks. Their plans put independent lay experts at the center of investigations, charged with using their experiences in law enforcement, criminal prosecution, management and psychology to dig in to serious complaints against bishops.
The American episcopate hoped that seeking recommendations from autonomous lay bodies would ensure a measure of ­accountability for their own actions and bring at least some transparency to internal church discipline processes. The US bishops know that McCarrick’s misdeeds were reported to church officials multiple times, to little ­effect, and they understand how much that has damaged their credibility as pastors of souls.
In the US, lay people have been involved in investigations of priestly abuse since 2002. The bishops know that such ­involvement has led to a cultural shift in the church on child protection and transformed Catholic environments into some of the safest anywhere for minors.
But the pope’s new policy, while allowing for “qualified” lay Catholics to assist in the investigation of bishops, is a process mostly reserved to senior bishops. Although the Holy Father has condemned “clericalism” for enabling abuse, his plan is largely a clerical one and doesn’ t require lay collaboration, involvement or accountability.
The pope’s plan, of course, is ­intended for a global church, and emphasizing lay involvement is a decidedly Western approach to church governance.
Mandating lay involvement in these matters in some parts of the world would be ineffective. In some jurisdictions, lay voices would simply be ignored. Still, lay involvement, where encouraged, has made for a stronger Church.
Would the pope’s new policy, ­absent a commitment to independent lay involvement, stop another perpetrator like McCarrick? Maybe. But maybe not. The influence of a man like McCarrick on the bishops he shaped and mentored can’t be overstated.
The US bishops will meet in Baltimore next month, where they will continue to discuss the abuse crisis. There they have an opportunity to demonstrate their own commitment to lay involvement in addressing abuse and negligence in office: They can resolve among themselves to involve lay review boards in the investigations of bishops and to take the recommendations of those boards seriously.
That decision would help them regain the trust of frustrated Catholics and show their counterparts around the globe that lay involvement is nothing to be afraid of.
Pope Francis, and the US bishops, have promised accountability, integrity and transparency to Catholics scandalized or harmed by perpetrators like McCarrick. The pope’s plan is a good first step. American bishops now have the chance to take another one, following the pope’s strong lead.

JD Flynn is a canon lawyer and editor of the Catholic News Agency. Twitter: @JDFlynn

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