Sex abuse crisis tops agenda as US Catholic bishops convene

David Crary
The Associated Press
FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2011, file photo, then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick prays during the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual fall assembly in Baltimore. As U.S. Catholic bishops gather for an important national assembly, the clergy sex abuse crisis dominates their agenda. But it's only one of several daunting challenges facing the nation's largest religious denomination. While federal and state law enforcement agencies widen their investigations of abuse, the church finds itself with ever fewer priests and nuns in service.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

As U.S. Catholic bishops gather for their national assembly next week, the clergy sex abuse crisis dominates their agenda amid calls from critics that church leaders finally bring about meaningful reforms to root out misbehaving priests.

The three-day assembly that starts Monday in Baltimore comes after a series of abuse scandals this year that have been stunning in their magnitude and number.

Bishops have several reforms under consideration to craft a stronger response to the scandals, but some Catholic activists are demanding further steps, including releasing the names of all clergy accused of abuse and giving a greater voice to abuse victims. One coalition of concerned Catholics, the 5 Theses movement, plans to post its proposals for reform on church doors in Baltimore and elsewhere on Sunday.

The abuse crisis is foremost among several challenges confronting Catholic leaders, who face conflicting pressures on the role of women and LGBT people in the church. And even though the Catholic population in the U.S. has been growing, most Catholics attend Mass rarely, and the number of active priests and nuns continues to decline.

Setting the tone for the national assembly, the president of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, asked his fellow bishops to spend the preceding seven days in “intensified” prayer, fasting and reparation.

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The bishops will consider new steps to police their own ranks during abuse cases, and will likely approve an investigation by lay law enforcement experts of the handling of the scandal surrounding the former cardinal in Washington, D.C.

“Bishops are under intense scrutiny and pressure to deliver on both of these items,” said the Rev. Thomas Berg, admissions director at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

In July, Pope Francis removed U.S. church leader Theodore McCarrick as a cardinal after church investigators said an allegation that he groped a teenage altar boy in the 1970s was credible. Subsequently, several former seminarians and priests reported that they had been abused or harassed by McCarrick as adults, triggering debate over who might have known and covered up his misconduct.

In August, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania detailed decades of abuse and cover-up in six dioceses, alleging that more than 1,000 children had been abused over the years by about 300 priests. Since then, a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia has begun working on a federal criminal case centered on child exploitation, and attorneys general in several other states have launched investigations.

In Baltimore, the bishops will consider several proposals approved by a committee in September. They include developing a code of conduct for bishops regarding sexual abuse and harassment, and establishing a confidential hotline – to be run by a third party – to receive allegations of sexual misconduct by bishops and relay them to appropriate church and civil authorities.

The committee also endorsed a “full investigation” into the McCarrick case that would give a role to lay law enforcement experts.

Critics have urged the bishops to go further by allowing outside investigators full access to church sex-abuse records and by supporting changes to statute-of-limitation laws so that more cases of long-ago sex abuse could be addressed in court.

Another recommendation came from a sex abuse task force at Villanova University in Philadelphia, one of the country’s top Catholic schools. It said the bishops’ conference should require all bishops to become mandatory reporters of suspected sexual abuse – in the same category as school teachers, social workers and others who work with children.

The step has been avoided thus far despite “the nefarious actions of certain bishops surreptitiously transferring sexually abusive priests from parish to parish, and in some cases from diocese to diocese, without notifying civil authorities of the suspected abuse,” the task force said. “American bishops should never have the option of looking the other way and remaining silent again.”

Most states include clergy among mandatory reporters, but some do not.