Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J., center, responds to a reporter's question during a news conference June 13, 2019, at the spring general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. Also pictured are Bishops Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Va., and Robert P. Deeley of Portland, Maine. CNS photo/Bob Roller

Editorial: Positive steps

  • June 21, 2019

A quarter century ago, towards the end of a year in which her children had been running amok, Queen Elizabeth lamented her annus horribilis, her horrible year. The bishops of America know that feeling.

The past year was indeed horrible for the leaders of America’s Catholic Church. Reports of clerical sex abuse and coverups — news headlines horribilis  — rolled over them like a tank in a clover field to crush their collective reputation. The onslaught was unprecedented and relentless — and it was largely deserved.

But give the bishops credit for wasting no time in starting a long process to repair the damage. And not just in a cosmetic way, but by rolling up their sleeves with a genuine sense of urgency.

That resolve was apparent during the bishops’ June 11-13 general meeting in Baltimore. In a flurry of votes, they approved plans to implement without delay recent measures decreed by Pope Francis to safeguard minors, punish offenders and hold bishops accountable. And they took the added step of authorizing a third-party hotline to receive confidential allegations of abuse or coverup by bishops.

After becoming the archetype last year of how to bring shame on the Church, the American bishops have committed to walking with the standard bearers on how to safeguard minors and vulnerable adults and, when abuse does occur, to expose it promptly and transparently. This resolve would be worthy of celebration if not for the still-raw memories of the scandals that had to be collected like kindling to light a fire under them.

Those scandals began 12 months ago with revelations concerning former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, gained steam when a Pennsylvania grand jury exposed more than a thousand cases of abuse and coverups within the U.S. Church, and intensified when Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò implicated several American prelates in a letter that included unproven allegations that Pope Francis turned a blind eye to McCarrick’s alleged history of abusing minors and inappropriately interacting with seminarians. And those were just some of the highlights.

Against this backdrop, the bishops gathered in Baltimore. Their first order of business was to approve by a vote of 205-16 the launch of a nation-wide system to receive confidential reports on any wayward bishops. They wanted to do this last fall but postponed when Pope Francis requested they slow down until after a February meeting with bishops to discuss the abuse crisis. The hotline now becomes a talking point of reforms that go further than even the updated norms endorsed last year in Canada.

It’s not a competition, of course, but Canada’s bishops should study carefully the U.S. initiatives, particular the measures to hold bishops to account. That piece is missing in Canada and would be a good addition to their other commendable efforts to cleanse the dark stain of scandal from the Church.

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