Catholic Whistleblowers requests Vatican investigation of flaws in US bishops' sex abuse policies

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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After years of raising concerns to U.S. bishops about potential holes in their clergy sexual abuse policies to little avail, a group of Catholic advocates has requested Vatican intervention.

Catholic Whistleblowers, in a formal request for investigation, alleges the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not followed through fully on its policy of zero tolerance toward abusive priests and deacons, in part because its guidelines lack a mechanism to assure that bishops send the necessary cases to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In addition, the organization argues that the conference uses a higher bar than church law to determine which cases require review by Rome.

"In a deliberate and ongoing way, the USCCB reneges on its commitment [to zero tolerance]. The conference does not exercise the leadership necessary to assure that known sexually abusive priests and deacons are removed from the community and that the community is warned about the sexually abusive priests and deacons," Fr. James Connell, a canon lawyer and a member of Catholic Whistleblowers, said in the letter.

The U.S. bishops' conference declined comment on the petition, saying that since it was sent to the Congregation for Bishops, the conference defers to the Vatican on how the questions raised are addressed.

The 13-page letter, dated Jan. 4, is addressed to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and was mailed to more than 450 U.S. bishops. It requests a formal investigation into the U.S. bishops' practices, particularly those spelled out in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, or the Dallas Charter. Like previous petitions Catholic Whistleblowers has sent the Vatican, the latest cites Canons 1389 and 1399 of the Code of Canon Law, arguing the U.S. bishops' conference has caused harm and scandal through its policies and behavior to address sexual abuse.

Since July, Catholic Whistleblowers, a network of priests, religious and laypersons, has asked the Vatican to investigate Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., and Cardinals Justin Rigali and Raymond Burke.

Related: Abuse survivor hopes 2016 sees results from Vatican's safeguarding body

In 2014, it asked for review of Bishop Robert Finn, then head of the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese. Last fall, it joined other organizations in appealing to President Barack Obama to convene a national commission investigating all sexual abuse of children.

Their petitions follow Pope Francis' approval in June of a five-point accountability system for bishops handling abuse allegations. The first point states that "there is the duty to report all complaints" to the appropriate Vatican congregation. The system also is to establish a tribunal housed in the doctrinal congregation that will rule on bishops' abuse of office pertaining to child sex abuse.

Connell told NCR that with the petitions Catholic Whistleblowers intends to assure that the tribunal, once formed, has work to keep it busy.

"We're saying, 'Yeah, you created it, God bless you, that's wonderful, now let's use it.' And so here are cases that ought to be looked at," he said.

The petition regarding the U.S. bishops' conference outlines three major concerns:

  • Resistance to statute of limitations reform;
  • A higher bar for bishops to report allegations to Rome, one that "dilutes the Church's process" in identifying such cases;
  • A flawed audit process that prevents verification that all cases that should be sent to the Vatican are sent.

The second concern addresses the difference between "sufficient evidence" in U.S. bishops' policies and "semblance of truth" in universal church law.

Point six of the Dallas Charter's "Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons" mandates a preliminary investigation of an allegation. "When there is sufficient evidence that sexual abuse of a minor has occurred, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith shall be notified," it says.

In contrast, Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela -- the universal church law promulgated in 2001 by Pope John Paul II and revised in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI -- states on "grave delicts" (moral crimes including sexual abuse): "Whenever the Ordinary or Hierarch receives a report of a grave delict, which has at least the semblance of truth, once the preliminary investigation has been completed, he is to communicate the matter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith."

Connell told NCR, "Sufficient evidence that the abuse occurred, we are saying, is a higher standard to be met, without there being a trial." He likened "semblance of truth" as akin to a grand jury determining there is enough evidence to indict and proceed to trial, but not necessarily enough to establish guilt or convict.

Beyond setting a potentially higher bar, Catholic Whistleblowers says the U.S. bishops' Essential Norms provide no way of assuring that bishops pass any cases to the doctrinal congregation because of its placement outside the audited portion of the charter.

"As a result, no one checks to verify that all the allegations of clergy sexual abuse of a minor or of a vulnerable adult that ought to be sent to the CDF actually are sent," Catholic Whistleblowers said in the petition.

"The Essential Norms must be audited," it said. The petition also urged:

  • Parish-level audits;
  • That bishops openly receive a suggestions letter from the on-site auditor;
  • That all dioceses and eparchies participate in the audit process. The Lincoln, Neb., diocese, a long holdout, is expected to allow auditing this year; five eparchies continue not to participate.

Many of the concerns and recommendations in the Catholic Whistleblowers petition are ones the group has raised with bishops in the past, but with little success. Correspondence between Connell and several high-ranking members of the bishops' conference since 2010 give a glimpse into the efforts*.

In August 2011, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, then bishops' conference president, confirmed in a letter that a number of Connell's eight charter suggestions -- largely to increase the audit's transparency and include the Essential Norms within its scope -- "might already 'be on the table.'"

Dolan told the priest he would pass his letter to Spokane, Wash., Bishop Blase Cupich, then chair of the bishops' Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People.

In an October 2012 letter, Bishop Daniel Conlon, Cupich's successor with the committee, told Connell, "The referral of cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is a very important step that ought to be verified." Conlon, bishop of Joliet, Ill., said he would personally recommend that adjustment for the next revision.

A year later, Connell wrote Conlon again regarding verification and other charter concerns.

At times, Connell said, he's received the impression that some bishops believe that by apologizing to abuse survivors they have fulfilled what is expected. That's not the case, Connell said, explaining if he gets into a car accident, he can say sorry and the other driver can forgive him, but there's still the matter of fixing the car. In the case of clergy sexual abuse, the bishops must take steps to repair the harm done by clergy, religious orders and the church, he said.

"It takes seconds to apologize; it might take years to repair the damage. And reparation is called for in justice," he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe]

Editor's Note: A clarification was made to this story that the petition sent to the Vatican did not include copies of letters between Fr. Jim Connell and high-ranking members of the bishops' conference.

Catholic Whistleblowers petition to Vatican re: USCCB sex abuse policies

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