Bishops Must Share Their Authority if the Sex Abuse Crisis is to be Resolved

Recognizing the bishops’ inability to credibly evaluate their own performance, Cardinal Blase Cupich and others representing the hierarchy of the Church are urging fellow bishops to accept leadership from lay people to make this evaluation credible. Catholic Church Reform Int’l (CCRI) believes the summit called for 21-24 February 2019 in Rome by Pope Francis with the heads of all the bishops conferences represents an opportunity which should not be missed: not only to assure that universal safeguards will be put in place, but also to provide for an ongoing role for lay leadership in the Church.

CCRI urges Pope Francis to include in their deliberations plans to make the laity an involved and equal partner in any and all solutions to the sexual abuse crisis. This should include victims/survivors of sexual abuse, family members (parents, siblings, husbands, wives, partners, children) of those abused, and representatives of support groups of those abused. In the follow-up plans, the Faithful’s counsel should be sought regarding (1) concrete decisions to be reached and implemented, and (2) a continuing role established for lay participation in local tribunals set up for clerical sexual abuse and beyond. From this point forward, these lay Catholics should be welcomed, not as an ad hoc response to the current crisis but in furtherance of more fundamental structural support for a fully synodal church. In this spirit, bishops cannot be the sole deciders, but laity should be full participatory and voting members for all decisions reached at this conference.

As loyal Church members, we ask ourselves how we, the People of God, can step forward in this time of crisis and best serve our Church? In exploring our options, we agree with Dr. Massimo Faggioli, Professor of Historical Theology at Villanova University, that our best path is “to reclaim from the institutional church ecclesial spaces that belong to the people of God and not to the hierarchy. If the church leadership doesn’t clean up the sex-abuse mess, civil authority will. But the civil authority can only deal with the church’s crimes; it cannot restore the church. Only the faithful can do that.”

“This special conference will lose all credibility if it does not include the laity as equal partners in the follow-up planning,” says Rene Reid, CCRI director. “Bishops can no longer be the foxes watching over their own hen houses. Bishops must welcome the lay Faithful and support lay initiatives that make room for the People to assume our rightful place in the Church as defined by Vatican II.”

As deliberations are underway, the problem for how the Church should move forward still comes down to the monarchical structure of the Church. Decentralization is key to its restructuring…but not just decentralizing down to the heads of Bishops Conferences. When Pope Francis released his personal response to the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse in the form of a letter “To the People of God,” he asked for a transformation of hierarchical culture: “It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People.” Lay participation with equal authority to the hierarchy must be a part of the restructuring plan.

In the deliberations at the February Conference, CCRI strongly supports the three points proposed by abuse survivor and former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Marie Collins from Ireland:

  1. The summit should aim at implementing a universal safeguarding policy across all Church entities worldwide. This policy should be aligned with Pope Francis’s promised “zero tolerance” policy.
  2. The summit should reach a decision on a clear accountability policy for all church leaders in regard to the handling and subsequent coverup of cases involving the abuse of minors.
  3. The summit should discern what changes are needed to canon law, beyond the June 2016 Apostolic Letter “As a Loving Mother,” to facilitate all necessary provisions in these changes to safeguarding and accountability.

This February 2019 Summit is only a beginning. Peter Wilkinson, an Advisor to CCRI and the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, recommends that this conference be followed “by an extraordinary and ordinary assembly: the first assembly convening in 2019, and the second in 2020, preceded by a range of preparatory research and mandatory local church listening sessions by diocesan bishops.”

“Listening is at the heart of these gatherings,” says Clyde Christofferson, an attorney and a CCRI Advisor. “It calls for a reorientation of the teaching style of bishops. Local gatherings for listening to one another provide a place to begin involving the laity with concrete synodal participation in the continuing life of the church. If nurtured by the community, these gatherings can provide the church with a structural mechanism that enables those charged with making decisions – bishops in particular – to listen before deciding, to listen before talking, to listen before teaching.”

CCRI recognizes that it is well beyond time for ordained Bishops and other ordained clergy to acknowledge the voice of the Spirit speaking through the People. But if they refuse and continue to live in their isolated clerical world, then it is time for the People to step forward and, through their own dialogue listening circles, assume their rightful place of having a deliberative voice in our Church.


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