Baltimore, Md. (CNA/EWTN News) - Speaking on Tuesday at the USCCB’s Fall General Assembly in Baltimore, Dr. Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board, told those present that while efforts taken by the bishops to combat the sexual abuse crisis have been noticed, there is still much work to be done.
Although it was “regrettable” that the Vatican had canceled the planned vote on sex abuse reform measures, Cesareo said the National Review Board will continue to stand by their recommendations to the body of bishops.
“Your response to this crisis has been incomplete,” Cesareo said bluntly, pointing out that the secular media and authorities have filled in gaps when it comes to increased transparency and accountability for those in positions of authority. He said it was “shameful” that abuse had been hidden from the public and “allowed to fester” until it was uncovered by secular sources.
What’s worse, he added, was how many innocent people have suffered due to the “inaction and silence” of some of those present. Bishops “must put the victim first when allegations come forward,” he said. “How many souls have been lost because of this crisis?”
Like Apostolic Nuncio Christophe Pierre, who addressed the USCCB on Monday, Cesareo did not mince words when describing how the bishops have betrayed the trust of the faithful and would now have to work to regain that trust. Many Catholics are “angry and frustrated” and will not be satisfied with prayers, he explained.
“They seek action that signals a cultural change from the leadership of the Church,” he said. The bishops must “embrace the principles of openness and transparency” that were outlined in the Dallas Charter from 2002, and “come to terms with the past.” Until the bishops acknowledge the truth about what occurred, they will not be able to experience reconciliation, said Cesareo.
In terms of recommendations on what to do now, the National Review Board said that each diocese should, as soon as possible, review all files regarding clergy abuse allegations dating back to at least 1950. If it is possible, the dioceses should also share the results of this review with the public.
This process should result in a list of clergy who have faced a credible accusation of abuse against a minor or vulnerable adult, and an analysis of how their cases were handled by the bishop and their diocese. In order to increase credibility, Cesareo recommended that the laity be involved in some capacity in this investigation.
Cesareo acknowledged that many bishops have already gone through this process, either through a review of files or an investigation with the state’s attorney general. For this, Cesareo said he was “grateful for your proactive steps to restore credibility” and that this was a “true marks of the leadership the Church so desperately needs.”
Bishops must be accountable for failures within their dioceses, he said, pointing out that while plenty of priests have been punished for sexual abuse, “the accountability of bishops has never been fully addressed.” In order to address this accountability, Cesareo said there is a need to investigate allegations that concern bishops, as well as to enforce consequences among those who have “failed in their responsibility to protect the vulnerable.”
Currently, the National Review Board said they are “unaware of any mechanism” that the USCCB uses to enact consequences against culpable bishops as well as “any sense of meaningful fraternal correction.” Cesareo said that perhaps the USCCB could bar those bishops from membership and prohibit them from attending national meetings as a form of punishment.
In addition to these steps, Cesareo said that the Dallas Charter should be “revisited,” and that the audit process be strengthened. Bishops, he said, should also be included under the charter.
During a question-and-answer period after Cesareo’s presentation, numerous bishops came forward to ask questions or to share stories.
Notably, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, suggested that the definition of “vulnerable adult” be expanded to include seminarians. That suggestion appeared to be well-received.
Earlier this year, O’Malley came under fire after it was shown that his secretary had ignored a letter of complaint against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick because the complaint concerned adult seminarians, not minors. O’Malley has since promised to update his policy regarding letters.
In his first public comments since his resignation was accepted by the pope, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Washington, recalled the bishops’ meeting in 2002, when the sexual abuse crisis in Boston was unfolding. That meeting, he recounted, considered by St. John Paul II as a “moment of purification,” for not only the bishops themselves, but for the institution of the Church.
And while Wuerl acknowledged that the bishops have come quite a ways since that time, they “still have a long way to go,” he said.
Wuerl offered praise for Cesareo’s points stressing the need for accountability and personal responsibility amongst the bishops.
“Sometimes we have to take personal responsibility, and we simply need to say, this needs to be done. Institutionally, it's easier. Personally, it's where that purification has to be a part of the process,” he said.