On the final day of the U.S. Bishops Spring Assembly, which was held in Baltimore from June 11-13, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., compiled a summary of the major issues discussed and voted on, and shared his observations of the experience. His report follows:

The U.S. Bishops’ June meeting in Baltimore has ended with an agenda dominated by the response to the crisis involving the sexual abuse of minors by clergy.  If I had to “read the room,” two things immediately struck me as the meetings began: first, the bishops present seemed exhausted, but committed to continue doing all that they can for victims in their dioceses; and, second, the bishops expressed great eagerness to ensure that the laity are given a prominent, even leading role in handling cases of sexual abuse of minors by clergy, including bishops.  

Priority was given in the discussions to developing a reporting system that would include a means of dealing with bishops alleged to have sexually abused minors or vulnerable adults, as described in Pope Francis’ recent apostolic letter, “Vox Estis Lux Mundi.”

The bishops also approved three related documents: a set of directives for US implementation of Pope Francis’ apostolic letter noted above; a statement affirming accountability for bishops; and, a protocol for restricting retired bishops credibly accused of abuse.

Some journalists I know who cover news from the U.S. bishops felt that there was a difference in tone at this meeting when compared to last November when the Vatican abruptly postponed discussions and proposals developed by the nation’s bishops to address clerical sexual abuse of minors.  There was a determination evident this week to “get something done.”

An excellent new resource highlighting steps to confront clergy sex abuse has been developed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and is now live on its website: usccbprevention.org.  It enables the user to study documents and developments since the “2002 Dallas Charter.”  I recommend it for those seeking to understand what the Church has been doing in the past 17 years.

The bishops voted nearly unanimously to approve a “third party reporting system” designed to receive confidentially by phone or online any allegations of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults against bishops.  The USCCB executive committee was charged with providing all the details for implementation as soon as possible, “hopefully by Labor Day.”

In this system, reported allegations will be forwarded to the Metropolitan Archbishop (that is, the head of the principal archdiocese in a province or region) who, in turn, will report the allegations to an investigator(s) or investigative board composed primarily of competent lay members.  The Holy See will be simultaneously notified since bishops are directly accountable to the Pope.  Once the investigation is completed, the Holy See will determine the appropriate action to be taken.   

It should be noted that anyone alleging sexual abuse by a bishop or any cleric for that matter should not wait for this system to be implemented but should report the allegation immediately to local law enforcement.  Such a person always has the right to report allegations of sexual abuse directly to the Metropolitan or the Vatican.

During the meeting this week, the bishops also approved their “Strategic Plan and Priorities for 2021-24,” a new “National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Deacons in the United States,” and a new ritual book for the “Ordination of Bishops, Priests and Deacons” that will now be forwarded to the Holy See for confirmation.  The changes to the rituals are modest, in my opinion, and incorporate more expressly some nuances and emphases.  I am eager to review the new Directory for Deacons and to determine how we can incorporate its provisions in the experience of our deacon community.

The bishops approved pursuit of the cause of canonization of the Venerable Irving “Francis” C. Houle (1925-2009), a Michigan born layman, husband of 60 years and father of five children. Widely known for his deeply personal holiness of life, Mr. Houle received the stigmata in 1993. The bishops were very enthusiastic to propose a married layman and father for canonization. I recommend to our faithful and clergy a Google search to become more familiar with him. We will post something later in the year.

Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles gave an interesting presentation on the growing absence of religious practices and decline of faith among the young. The bishops expressed concern that the group now known as “nones” – no religion – be given priority attention throughout the Church in our country.  Surveys indicate that disaffiliation with the Catholic Church begins as early as 13 years of age. This is a wake up call!

Finally, the bishops approved a revision in the “US Catechism for Adults” regarding the death penalty, following Pope Francis’ recent revision in the universal “Catechism of the Catholic Church.”  By the way, it was noted that the widely publicized recent changes in the Lord’s Prayer and Gloria of the Mass do not apply to the U.S. (at least not yet).