When the U.S. bishops’ conference released this week its annual audit of child sexual abuse allegations, the most remarkable element of the report was how unremarkable it was.
The report detailed child abuse allegations reported to U.S. dioceses between July 2020 and June 2021. It showed that allegations of historical abuse are on the decline, after a spike that began in 2019, and that allegations of recent child abuse in the Church remain especially low.
The report also explained that nearly two million adults who work with children in the Church underwent background checks during that period, and that millions underwent some kind of training to recognize unsafe environments.
In the two decades since clerical abuse scandals prompted USCCB policies aimed at ensuring safe environments for children, Catholic dioceses have come a long way on that front. The Church in the U.S. is not perfect at protecting children - far from it - but in many respects, the USCCB is well ahead of other religious denominations and other public institutions on policy designed to protect children.
In that light, the USCCB audit report is a snapshot of a 20-year process that has, albeit imperfectly, changed much about the Church’s culture and practices regarding safe environments for children.
The third-party audits and insistence on numerical transparency, experts say, are part of what’s made a difference. Year after year, external reports have documented the status of incoming cases, the functionality of review boards, the bishops who have declined to participate in third-party reviews, and the disposition of allegations, new and old.
On many elements of the issues surrounding safe environments for children, the numbers have been reported every 12 months, in black and white, to give an ongoing sense of the scope and scale of the problem — and auditors have urged new areas where attention should be paid, new issues which are not sufficiently addressed, documented, or reported transparently.
Experts have frequently told The Pillar that whatever reforms have been accomplished, it is in no small part because of the measure of transparency the annual reports have brought to cultural transformation. More transparency, of course, would likely have more positive effects, but the cultural shift on issues related to children in the Church can’t be ignored.
But compare that approach to the Holy See’s implementation of Vos estis lux mundi, the 2019 Vatican protocols for investigating bishops accused of misconduct, abuse, or negligence in office.
What the Church knows officially about Vos estis’ implementation is very little. One U.S. bishop was allowed to resign after an investigation into his conduct, two others were exonerated, with no public information, from allegations against them.
Other bishops have reportedly gone under investigation — in California, in New York, in Tennessee. But the Holy See has been unwilling to confirm details of those investigations, or even to acknowledge that they are actually taking place.
Even in a diocese where priests have written to the apostolic nuncio to ask for “merciful relief” from the leadership of their bishop, the Holy See has not formally acknowledged that investigations have taken place, or given the diocesan presbyterate, even, any sense of whether their complaints have been heard.
While the Holy See is now in the process of revising Vos estis, there has been little consultation on what changes should like.
Whatever good Vos estis does, it seems, will not be conveyed in annual reports detailing how many reports the third-party tip line received, how many were passed on to metropolitans, or how many are under investigation. There will be no sense of how many people are contacted for interviews during investigations, or how many investigations are now pending at the Holy See.
While the Holy See’s secrecy does not mean that Vos estis can’t accomplish anything, it is worth considering whether it can lead to any meaningful cultural change — combatting the cultural issues that allow episcopal misconduct or negligence to go unresolved — without transparency.
And it’s worth asking whether a policy aimed at accountability, but conducted in secret, will do anything at all to inspire confidence in Catholics.
Cardinal Wilton Gregory said last month that the U.S. bishops do not seem to have earned trust among most Catholics that they’ve handled serious sexual misconduct, abuse and coercion well in the life of the Church.
Gregory acknowledged that some bishops have gained trust by being “forthright, honest and open with their people.”
“But when you look at the corporate identity of the episcopate, we still have a long way to go because, once again, the actions of one influence the credibility of another,” the cardinal told Catholic News Service.
“With each revelation that involved a bishop not taking appropriate action, with each revelation that a bishop himself was engaged in this terrible criminal behavior, the progress that was made over months and years was weakened,” Gregory added.
“With every sordid revelation (of sexual abuse or improper response by a bishop), the task becomes more difficult, the climb becomes steeper.”
It’s worth considering whether it’s not just the allegations that lead to a sense of mistrust, but the black-box conditions in which those allegations seem to be investigated by the Holy See.
It is one thing to accept that bishops are sinners. But for many Catholics, it is quite another to fear that an opaque process of investigation might veil systemic protection for episcopal ne’er-do-wells.
Given how much is still unknown even about Theodore McCarrick’s misdeeds — consider that nothing about his alleged financial malfeasance has been disclosed — it is difficult to ask Catholics to trust that in a secret process of the Holy See, justice is being administered.
Last month, scholar Stephen White wrote at The Pillar that when it comes to Vos estis, “the law must work and also be seen to be working.”
“The success of the law will … be measured by whether or not it restores a measure of credibility to the Church’s promise to hold bishops accountable,” he added.
Few would say that the USCCB’s laws on child protection are perfect — and most would agree they’re likely in need of reform. And few would say that the U.S. bishops or the conference itself has cornered the market on transparency in leadership.
But when it comes to the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” few would deny that what does work can be seen to be working — in black and white, with charts and graphs, published once a year.
It’s unlikely the Holy See will ever implement such a practice. At the same time, most Church-watchers have come to see transparent reporting on reform procedures as a basic element of responsible Church leadership.
If there is a “credibility gap,” the disparity between expectation and practice is likely at its center.