Bishops use electronic voting devices during the spring general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore June 12, 2019. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

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.

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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.”

Regaining the trust of the public means demonstrating accountability, transparency, and co-responsibility.

One member of the conference who is working steadily to rebuild trust is Bishop Shawn McKnight of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, who has shown himself to be a leader on the matter of accountability. Months before the revelations about former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the release of the Pennsylvania grand-jury report, he had called for a comprehensive response to the sex-abuse crisis. He insisted this include not just lay involvement at all levels, but also a commitment to financial transparency. As part of the latter, Bishop McKnight publicly shared how much his diocese has spent caring for abuse survivors and providing sustenance to clergy removed from the ministry for abuse. Moreover, he requested all religious orders in the diocese publish the names of their credibly accused members in order to continue serving in the diocese.

Bishop McKnight and a growing number of other bishops are modeling for the church a distinct new culture rooted in proactive and responsible management. For these leaders, the Dallas Charter and Francis’s motu proprio are not a ceiling, but rather a floor—they are just the starting point for what can be achieved going forward to effectively address the abuse crisis and the failure of governance that perpetuated it.

These are just some of the specific steps that bishops could take to expand their efforts in episcopal accountability.

● Institute an external audit of the new “Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundi


● Include lay experts in the investigation of every case of bishop misconduct


● Commit to making the results of metropolitan investigation reports available to survivors and the public


● Adopt the measures proposed by the National Review Board to strengthen the Dallas Charter and implement independent audits based on common standards and guidelines


● Commission longitudinal research—repeated observations of the same variable over time—to gather data and disseminate best practices for responding to abuse


● Mandate external financial audits of every diocese in the country with full public disclosure

Regaining the trust of the public means demonstrating the values of accountability, transparency, and co-responsibility—values that undergird successful leadership and management cultures across many sectors. This new culture and its values must be accompanied by measures that show how people and structures are performing, and steps for taking remedial action when those measures aren’t met. The calls from some bishops to institute an audit program to closely monitor the USCCB-approved motu proprio point to the overwhelming need for a new culture of leadership and management at all church levels, one that includes mandated, external audits to show improvement and restore trust. At their meeting next week, the U.S. bishops have a further opportunity to show the world how serious they are about implementing far-reaching change that can restore the moral integrity of the church and pave the way for its renewal.

Thomas J. Healey is a board member of Leadership Roundtable, a not-for-profit organization committed to best practices and accountability in the Catholic Church. Michael J. Brough is its deputy director.

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