U.S. Catholic bishops once again will take up the topic of clergy sex abuse this week, during their 2019 Spring General Assembly in Baltimore.
Setting uniform accountability standards for Roman Catholic clergy to respond to sexual abuse in the church is at the top of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) agenda for their assembly, which convenes Tuesday through Friday. The topic also was a central focus of the USCCB session last November.
The USCCB assembly comes in the wake of several high-profile investigations of abuse and cover-ups among Catholic clergy, including a Pennsylvania grand jury report, released last August, that detailed clergy abuse of more than 1,000 victims by more than 300 priests dating back to 1947.
New standards for reporting abuse
In May, Pope Francis issued a new church law requiring all Catholic priests and nuns worldwide to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities, and outlined procedures to investigate cases when the accused is a bishop, cardinal or religious superior.
The law was groundbreaking in that is set uniform standards for all 415,000 Catholic priests and 660,000 nuns to report all incidences of sexual abuse of a minor, sexual misconduct with an adult, possession of child pornography or any clerical cover-up of such crimes.
U.S. Catholic bishops are set to consider this week accountability standards to enforce that mandate among Catholic clergy in the United States. The papal mandate does not require Catholics or their clergy to report allegations to civil authorities, such as police or the Department of Human Services, instead requiring clergy to follow civil reporting requirements where they live.
Secular vs. clergy reporting
The Vatican has long argued a universal reporting law isn't feasible due to different countries' legal systems, and that imposing one could endanger clergy in places where Catholics are a persecuted minority. But, advocates for victims of clergy sex abuse argue the lack of a uniform civil reporting requirement leaves the door open to continued cover-ups.
"Any reform that leaves the ultimate authority for investigating abuse and cover up in the hands of church officials instead of secular law enforcement is no reform at all," said Zach Hiner, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), in advance of this week's USCCB meeting. "Rather, it is the continuation of how bishops have responded to cases of sex abuse since 2002, just updated and codified as a new policy. Yet new policies and declarations that do not make secular and independent investigations central to their design will never succeed."
Hiner said the work of secular investigators has forced a response to clergy sex abuse in recent years.
"We believe the answer is secular involvement and investigations," Hiner said. "The substantial and historic progress that has been made in the past six months has been due to ongoing revelations, investigations, and prosecutions by criminal and civil authorities."
Hiner said mistrust of bishops, both in and outside the Catholic faith, "is at one of its highest points in modern U.S. history."
"In order to rebuild that trust, we need to see the bishops at this week’s USCCB meeting embrace independent, secular investigations, not further retreating into internal policing," Hiner said.
As the USCCB meeting convenes, two separate and independent reports are being compiled on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy: one by the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and another by the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa and Eastern Oklahoma.
The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City commissioned a report last August by the law firm McAfee & Taft to examine all files containing any allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, dating back to 1960.
According to an archdiocese press release from last August, the report was commissioned to identify "instances where credible allegations of child sexual abuse were reported, substantiated, prosecuted or admitted to among priests serving in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City." A second report is expected to examine earlier files.
Diane Clay, director of communications for the archdiocese, told the News & Eagle in February all abuse allegations uncovered in the review will be entered into a database to be tracked by an archdiocese victim assistant coordinator.
Older cases, which have surpassed the statute of limitations for criminal cases, still will be forwarded to law enforcement to make a record of the allegations. Clay said the archdiocese is working with Oklahoma City Police Department and the Oklahoma County District Attorney's Office to make a record of those older cases.
Newer cases, where the priest still may be serving and the statute limitations may not have expired, will be reported to the vicar general, chancellor and archbishop. Clay said any past allegations found to be credible will be forwarded to law enforcement for further action.
A spokesperson for McAfee & Taft said Monday the report still is being compiled. No release date has been set.
Bishop David Konderla, of the Diocese of Tulsa and Eastern Oklahoma, wrote in the January-February issue of "Eastern Oklahoma Catholic" magazine the diocese likewise plans to make public the findings of its own commissioned report.
"We are currently engaged in a complete and thorough review of our clergy files by an independent law firm," Konderla wrote. "When finished, we will release a report on its findings with regard to abuse in the past."
Dave Crenshaw, director of communications for the diocese, told the News & Eagle Friday the report still is in progress, and does not have an anticipated release date.
In the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, anyone can report past or present abuse through the Abuse of Minors Pastoral Response Hotline at (405) 720-9878. In the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa and Eastern Oklahoma, reports can be made to the diocesan chancery at (918) 294-1904 or at the pastoral response hotline at (918) 307-4970.
Calling a pastoral hotline does not relieve individuals of their obligation under Oklahoma law to report to civil authorities any incident or suspicion of sexual abuse of a minor. Oklahoma Department of Human Services has established a statewide abuse reporting hotline at (800) 522-3511, and any case involving a child in imminent danger can be reported to 911.
In addition to the issue of sexual abuse, USCCB bishops also plan to discuss and vote on revisions to the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults, the statement of church faith and doctrine, dealing with the death penalty.
The revisions come after the pope changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church last August to state “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person," and the Catholic Church "works with determination for its abolition worldwide."
A live stream and satellite feed of the USCCB meeting is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, and 8:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. Thursday, all times Eastern. Live streams will be available at http://www.usccb.org/live.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.