Catholic church officials have made significant strides in recent months to address bishop accountability on sexual abuse and other failures of leadership. Whether they can actually restore trust remains to be seen. In June 2019, one month after Pope Francis issued the motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi calling on episcopal conferences around the world to put measures in place for holding bishops accountable, the USCCB reacted swiftly and approved a series of directives and protocols aimed at doing just that. But it defined no mechanisms for external oversight or mandatory audits, without which it’s hard to know whether these, or any other procedures put in place since the 2002 Dallas Charter, are being adequately monitored. What happens when there is no meaningful oversight of bishops was made freshly clear last summer with the case of Michael J. Bransfield, the Wheeling-Charleston bishop accused of financial malfeasance, sexual misconduct, and an ensuing cover-up. At their general assembly meeting next week, the bishops have the opportunity to further demonstrate their commitment to accountability and transparency by adopting a principle from corporate best practices: What gets measured gets managed.
This would be the obvious next step, given the measures the bishops adopted in June. These included the establishment of a third-party reporting process, and implementation of a new model whereby reports of abuse or misconduct by bishops would be referred to the appropriate metropolitan archbishop and the papal nuncio. The metropolitan, in turn, would be responsible for making these reports available to civil authorities and for cooperating in any investigation that may ensue. Bishop Jaime Soto, of the diocese of Sacramento, also made a proposal to mandate an audit-review process of the newly approved bishop-accountability procedures.
Additionally, the bishops recognized the importance of “the counsel of lay men and women whose professional backgrounds are indispensable.” As such, they could look to the expertise of Francesco Cesareo, chair of the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People. He has been vocal in his calls for strengthening the audit process of the Dallas Charter, declaring in a special November 2018 report to the body of bishops that the bar for achieving compliance with the charter is too low. He has also called for fundamental change to the type of audit and the audit instrument itself to ensure it serves as “more than simply a compliance review.” And he has recommended that the charter audit be expanded to include a review of parishes and Catholic schools to ensure the data they self-report is accurate. Cesareo also sounded a strong warning to the bishops: “Today, the faithful and the clergy do not trust many of you. Their distrust will remain until you truly embrace the principles of openness and transparency listed in the [Dallas] Charter.”