There is much that is being said in the national press and social media about the June 11-14 meeting of the US Catholic Bishops Spring Assembly in Baltimore. While other business was conducted during those days, the focus of our agenda was on the clergy sexual abuse scandal and the accountability of bishops.
Since 2002, the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (commonly known as the Dallas Charter), along with the Essential Norms, has resulted in the formation and training of millions of Catholics – laity, clergy and religious - regarding the safety and protection of children and young people from sexual abuse by clergy, religious and others who represent the Church in some capacity. Great strides have been made because so many people are now trained to be alert to the signs and patterns of sexual predation, especially with regard to minors. Nevertheless, more is needed. The horrific case of Theodore McCarrick makes it clear that there must also be accountability for bishops, something that was lacking in the Dallas Charter.
On May 7, 2019, Pope Francis issued a Motu Proprio entitled Vos estis Lux Mundi (You are the Light of the World).This followed upon the February meeting which he convened in Rome with the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences from around the world. An Apostolic Letter motu proprio is a legislative text that modifies or adds to Church law (canon law). In this case, the Holy Father issued the Apostolic Letter “on his own initiative” (in Latin, “motu proprio”) underscoring his concern and attentiveness to the topics addressed within the new procedural norms. It applies universally – that is, to the Catholic Church around the world. This motu proprio, “Vos estis lux mundi,” pertains to the accountability of bishops.
This past week in Baltimore, the Bishops implemented policies to set up this accountability here in the United States. Specifically, the bishops approved three documents: a Protocol Regarding Available Non-Penal Restrictions on Bishops, one entitled Affirming Our Episcopal Commitments and one outlining Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundi Concerning Bishops and their Equivalents. I see what we have just established as a next step in the direction of this necessary accountability.
The Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundi (Bishops’ accountability) place responsibility upon the ‘Metropolitan,’ another word for the Archbishop of an ecclesiastical province. Here in Nebraska, Archbishop George Lucas is our Metropolitan. Both the Diocese of Lincoln and the Diocese of Grand Island are known in rank as “suffragan” diocese in the province under the Metropolitan (Archbishop) of Omaha. Bishop James Conley in Lincoln is the senior suffragan bishop ahead of me, as he was bishop in the province before me.
The Directives for the implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundi further specifies how the Metropolitan is to handle the report of misconduct that he receives. Should an accusation be brought against the Archbishop, then Bishop Conley, as the senior suffragan, would assume responsibility for handling the report in the manner outlined in The Directives.
As bishops, we are committed to the involvement of lay professionals in this process. We have approved the establishment of a national third-party reporting system. In this way, anyone can make a report about a bishop’s sexual misconduct or his mishandling of a report of sexual misconduct that has been brought to his attention. Furthermore, “each Metropolitan, in consultation with the suffragan bishops, should appoint on a stable basis, even by means of an ecclesiastical office, a qualified lay person to receive reports of conduct about bishops referred to in Article 1 [of the Motu Proprio].” While in Baltimore, Archbishop Lucas, Bishop Conley and I met to discuss the implementation of this protocol here in Nebraska and the formation of a list of lay experts from our three diocese from which an individual could be appointed to investigate and publicize allegations.
There are some who say these provisions are inadequate. The Motu Proprio, Vos estis lux mundi, guiding these policies worldwide, was approved “ad experimentum” for three years. During that time we will learn what further steps or modifications may need to be developed.
Here in the Diocese of Grand Island, I pledge to all of you my firm intention as your bishop to strive for holiness in the sight of God and in the service of His Church. I intend to respond immediately to these serious matters when they are brought to my attention. Furthermore, I want to restate my hope that anyone who is a victim of sexual abuse or misconduct committed by bishops, clergy or that of others who have represented the Church, might find the courage and strength to seek justice and healing. Psalm 27 says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom should I fear.”
While these are difficult times, the Lord will not abandon his Church. Please pray daily for all those whose lives and faith have been violated and destroyed by clergy and others in the Church and by the action or inaction of bishops in dealing with these crimes. Please also pray for me, that I might receive wisdom and grace to fulfill my office as Bishop faithfully, with the mind and heart of Jesus.
If you or someone you care about are suffering the pain of abuse, the Church wants to help. Please contact our Victim Assistance Coordinators to report church-related incidents of abuse or to seek support and find resources.
Elizabeth Heidt, Ph.D.
Cheryl Albright, M.S.
Rev. Jose Chavez