(Editor’s Note: This issue contains coverage of the key issues discussed at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore.)
By Mark Pattison
BALTIMORE – A series of standards of episcopal accountability for bishops was formally unveiled Nov. 13 at the fall general meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, but with the proposed standards not going to be voted on, interest in discussing them during the meeting’s public session Nov. 14 was low.
The Vatican’s intervention, announced when the USCCB meeting began Nov. 12, asked that the bishops not approve any elements of their proposals to strength its policies on clergy sex abuse until they can be reviewed for their conformity to canon law and after the February meeting at the Vatican for presidents of bishops’ conferences worldwide.
“In our dioceses, there already exist codes of conduct,” said Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, Nov. 13. “In light of that, the focus became on how to build additional policy and best practices to hold ourselves accountable.”
Bishop Steven R. Biegler of the statewide Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming, was the only bishop to offer any commentary on the proposed standards.
Bishop Biegler said he had experienced parishioners and members of law enforcement and the legal community who have been “very critical of me,” adding they sense “favoritism toward the person who’s in power … which then shuns the victims.”
He added, “It’s not a theory that I have, it’s an experience I have. It’s a dynamic that if we don’t address it someplace …,” Bishop Biegler said, his voice trailing. “For reform in the church, it needs to be more than canon law. For reform in our lives as bishops, it needs to be more than canon law.”
The bishop, whose amendments were not accepted by the committee, noted the contradictory sense of responsibility. “I feel that we’ve failed to work with our co-responsibility with the laypeople,” yet “the bishop at the end of the day has to steer the ship,” he said. “We cannot dismiss ourselves of that responsibility.”
Cardinal Tobin told Bishop Biegler, “I thought that your content could distract from the other content in the draft,” but “I will take it home with me and read it for my own spiritual life.”
There are seven standards, which deal with: diocesan and eparchial codes of conduct; protection of children and young people; sexual misconduct with an adult by a bishop; sexual harassment of an adult by a bishop; responding to allegations of sexual abuse of minors, or of sexual misconduct with or harassment of adults by priests or deacons; reporting and resolving complaints against bishops; and further commitments to ensure integrity.
There also is an acknowledgment for each bishop to sign, according to a copy of the proposed standards obtained by Catholic News Service.
“As a bishop, I am called to imitate Christ, the Good Shepherd, as closely as possible – especially his humility. I am called to be in the midst of my people as one who serves,” it says. “Therefore, it is my solemn pledge to follow these Standards of Episcopal Conduct and to explore continually and engage additional means that will protect the people of God and allow the Gospel to be preached with integrity.”
The acknowledgment concludes: “I ask that all the faithful hold me to this pledge and to pray for me.”
“Power, prestige and honors cannot be the desires of a bishop; rather, he must do what is right and what will lead others to salvation,” the proposed standards say. “The effects of the abuse of power, especially in sexual matters, have come more and more to light. We acknowledge that some bishops have failed to stop such abuse, or to respond properly to such claims, by what they have done or failed to do.”
“In our codes of conduct, if not already clearly stated, we will make clear that the code applies to the bishop of the diocese or eparchy,” the proposed standards say.
It adds, “The principles and standards of the ‘Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People’ apply to bishops as well as to priests and deacons.”
The standards commit bishops to “continue to reach out to the victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse and their families in support of their spiritual and emotional well-being. Realizing that we might not always be the best suited to offer such care, we will make every effort to help victims/survivors find the care and healing they need.”
Sexual misconduct with an adult by a bishop, the proposed document says, “is gravely sinful; it could also be a canonical or civil crime. … sins against the Sixth Commandment strike at the very dignity of a person and have absolutely no place in the life of a minister, most especially one who is a bishop.
“There can be no ‘double life,’ no ‘special circumstances,’ no ‘secret life’ that frees a bishop from practicing chastity. The bishop is called to chastity and continence,” it adds. Bishops would pledge to “set and maintain appropriate emotional and sexual boundaries in all our relationships – professional and personal.”
Similarly, “sexual harassment by a bishop is completely incompatible with his role as a servant for Christ and others, as well as the basic respect and dignity one person owes another,” the proposed standards say. “We will not engage in sexual harassment of any person. “We will not tolerate the sexual harassment of any person by others serving the church.”
In the realm of abuse allegations, it says, “Every bishop has the moral duty to see that people are protected and treated justly by those who minister in the name of the church.”
When it comes to reporting and resolving complaints about bishops, it says, “If a bishop is accused of the sexual abuse of a minor, the accused bishop is obliged to inform the apostolic nuncio. If a bishop has been named in a civil or criminal complaint regarding sexual misconduct with or harassment of an adult, he is likewise obliged to inform the apostolic directly.” This would also apply if he becomes aware of sexual misconduct or harassment by another bishop.
“The bishops will engage in regular periodic training in the best practices of management and human resources,” the standards say.
When it comes to proposing priest candidates for the office of bishop,” it adds, “we bishops will recommit ourselves to the highest standards by recommending only priests who are truly suitable for the episcopacy.”
Should the standards come up for a vote, they would require a yes vote from two-thirds of USCCB membership.