Perhaps some of you are getting tired of hearing about the sexual abuse crisis plaguing the Church, but my sense is that most of you want to be kept informed about how the leadership of the Church is addressing this current scandalous situation. As a follow-up to my last column, I want to explain to you the actions taken by the United States bishops at our June meeting. It might be good to go back and first read my last column in which I explained the action taken by Pope Francis in issuing his apostolic letter, “Vos estis lux mundi.” What the U.S. bishops did was take our Holy Father’s direction and apply it here in the United States. We essentially adapted the actions we were prepared to take at our last November meeting in light of the Pope’s letter, applying the new universal law of the Holy Father to the situation in our own country.

The U.S. bishops passed three documents of great significance at our June meeting. The first was “Affirming our Episcopal Commitments,” the second was “Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of ‘Vos estis lux mundi’ Concerning Bishops and their Equivalents,” and the third was the “Protocol Regarding Non-Penal Restrictions on Bishops.” In addition to these three documents, it is important to note that the bishops also reaffirmed our plan to institute a third-party reporting system for allegations against bishops. This will be a completely independent and easily accessible means for anyone to report an allegation against a bishop concerning sexual abuse and alleged cover-up. I will try to succinctly explain these important new policies and procedures just mentioned and now in force in the Church in the United States.

In “Affirming our Episcopal Commitments,” the bishops of the United States reaffirm our sincere commitment to uphold and live faithfully the promises we all made when we became bishops, specifically with regard to chastity and the proper handling of cases of sexual misconduct. In the document we state, “Today, in a spirit of pastoral responsibility and contrition, we affirm once more the commitments we made when we were ordained bishops, including commitments to respond directly and appropriately to cases of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable persons, sexual misconduct, and the mishandling of such cases by bishops.”

Of importance is our common commitment to involve lay persons in the investigation of allegations against bishops: “We are also committed, when we receive or when we are authorized to investigate such cases, to include the counsel of lay men and women whose professional backgrounds are indispensable.” This commitment is reflected elsewhere in the second implementation document referenced above. I can tell you that this involvement of lay people was a major concern of all the bishops during the discussions of which I was a part. Within the universal directives given us by Pope Francis, the U.S. bishops went as far as possible in making this an indispensable part of our plan of response. All should keep in mind that the third-party reporting system also ensures the monitoring of allegations by the independent lay persons with whom we will contract.

The “Directives for the Implementation of ‘Vos estis lux mundi’ Concerning Bishops and their Equivalents” is really the heart of the new policies and procedures established by the bishops. For those who are familiar with the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” this is essentially the application of similar procedures when allegations involve bishops. The Holy Father has now put in place clear law which seeks to hold bishops accountable, and the bishops of the United States have detailed these for application here in our country. The bishops will be held accountable for not only the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable persons, but also for the sexual exploitation of adults through the abuse of power. Also, bishops will be held accountable for not reporting incidents of abuse just described, or for not following civil law and Church law in these matters. We could call the latter “obstruction of justice.”

I remind readers that these new Church laws and procedures do not in any way interfere with or preclude the civil investigation of crimes. We are all still mandatory reporters, and the sexual abuse of minors must be reported to civil authorities so that they can do their own investigation and prosecute if warranted. These new laws in the Church direct how we will handle these cases under our own law, even when the civil authorities are not disposed to prosecute. We still need to process these allegations to justly establish the status of accused bishops within the Church herself.

The investigation of allegations against bishops will be overseen by the Metropolitan Archbishop of the province in which the accused bishop resides. If the allegation is against the Metropolitan, the investigation will be handled by the senior bishop of the province. There are 32 such Metropolitans in the United States, of which I am one. Again the involvement of qualified lay people will be part of the investigation. In fact, the Metropolitan is urged to appoint a lay investigator chosen from among qualified lay people previously identified by the province.

The third document mentioned above, “Protocol Regarding Non-Penal Restrictions on Bishops,” may be of less interest to most readers. It essentially deals with what happens when a bishop resigns or is removed from office under these new laws and procedures. It covers the responsibilities and rights of such bishops, along with the obligations and expectations of the diocese.

I urge all interested to read these actual documents for themselves. They are available at archdpdx.org/a-continuous-and-profound-conversion-of-heart.

As always, let us be reminded to keep first and foremost in our prayers, concern and care the victims and survivors of sexual abuse.