Joan Frawley Desmond: The US Bishops and Fraternal Correction

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Bishops from across the United States take part in the 2013 Fall General Assembly in Baltimore. (Addie Mena/CNA)

The Archbishop McCarrick scandal highlights an obligation to correct and report sexual misconduct by a brother bishop, but will more reforms make a difference?

By Joan Frawley Desmond, National Catholic Register, 11/9/18

WASHINGTON — Shortly after his 2009 appointment as the bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming, then-Bishop Paul Etienne began reviewing depositions from victims who alleged that Bishop Emeritus Joseph Hart of Cheyenne had engaged in sexual abuse of minors.

“After consulting with Archbishop [Pietro] Sambi, the U.S. nuncio at the time who supported [the plan], I wrote a letter in 2010 to the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” Archbishop Etienne told the Register, recalling his decision, while bishop of Cheyenne, to request a Vatican review of the allegations against Bishop Hart, shepherd of Cheyenne from 1978 to 2001.

Initial accusations against Bishop Hart dated back to his time as a priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, and resulted in a settlement without any acknowledgement of guilt. Subsequent allegations arose from his tenure as bishop of Cheyenne, but civil and Church authorities found insufficient evidence to act.

The family of a local victim met with Bishop Etienne shortly after his arrival to ask why Bishop Hart continued to play an active role in the diocese. Despite the accusations, Bishop Hart had been maintaining his innocence throughout the investigation.

Over time, Bishop Etienne not only forwarded the case file to Vatican officials, who also found insufficient evidence in the Kansas City-St. Joseph case; Bishop Etienne also imposed restrictions on Bishop Hart’s public ministry.

In 2016, Bishop Etienne was appointed archbishop of  Anchorage, and his successor, Bishop Steven Biegler, continued to investigate accusations against Bishop Hart.

After additional evidence was provided, Bishop Biegler’s review of the case led to the finding of a credible allegation against Bishop Hart. Civil authorities also renewed their investigation of the accused bishop.

Committed to Truth

Asked to explain the renewed investigation against Bishop Hart, Archbishop Etienne replied, “I did it out of my love for the Church.”

“I wouldn’t have been able to keep a good clean conscience if I had not asked for that level of attention and investigation,” he added.

Archbishop Etienne’s and Bishop Biegler’s commitment to episcopal oversight stood out in a recent report into bishop accountability jointly published by The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Boston Globe. At the same time, the article also cited the difficult and lengthy battle to remove Bishop Hart from ministry as an object lesson on the stark limits of “fraternal correction.”

“Pressure from fellow bishops — or what some dubbed ‘fraternal correction’ — worked only if the accused bishop felt guilty about what he’d done,” the authors of the investigative report concluded.

Still, Archbishop Etienne and Bishop Biegler’s action against a fellow bishop offers a striking counterpoint to the predominant media narrative of episcopal “cover-up,” following the disclosure that disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had been promoted to archbishop of Washington and remained in office despite repeated reports of his sexual misconduct with seminarians.

Fraternal Gathering

The U.S. bishops are expected to address the subject of fraternal correction during their Nov. 12-14 meeting in Baltimore, where the agenda will primarily focus on improved oversight and accountability for bishops accused of sexual abuse and misconduct or of negligence in failing to remove clerics who harmed minors and vulnerable adults.

The discussion will include proposals for both a revised “Code of Conduct” for bishops and the establishment of a confidential third-party reporting system that will allow whistleblowers and victims to make reports without fear of retaliation by their religious superiors.

Further, the assembly will evaluate “policies addressing restrictions on bishops who were removed or resigned because of allegations of sexual abuse of minors … or misconduct with adults, including seminarians and priests,” according to the USCCB administrative committee’s Sept. 19 statement.

“The bishops have decided that the [Dallas] Charter needs review, and they want to clarify the issue of reporting fellow bishops,” Deacon Bernie Nojera, the executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, told the Register.

A strong conduct code would reflect a “clear understanding of expectations,” for bishops, the deacon explained, while noting that the approval of a “third-party reporting system” would fortify the push for episcopal accountability.

Encouraging Reforms

No doubt, the fallout from the McCarrick scandal has put enormous pressure on Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and other Catholic leaders to secure reforms that will prevent future cover-ups of episcopal misconduct. Revelations about past allegations against the prominent archbishop quickly sparked calls for the creation of a national, independent panel of expert lay faithful to take up cases involving bishops.

“[W]e have reached a point where bishops alone investigating bishops is not the answer,” said Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, New York.

Yet it is worth noting that both the Code of Canon Law and a “Statement of Episcopal Commitment,” approved as part of the 2002 Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, already provide guidance on a bishop’s obligation to challenge and report sexual abuse and misconduct by a brother bishop.

“We will apply the requirements of the charter also to ourselves, respecting always Church law as it applies to bishops,” reads one portion of the “Statement of Episcopal Commitment.”

“If another bishop becomes aware of … an allegation of the sexual abuse of a minor by a bishop, he, too, is obliged to inform the apostolic nuncio and comply with applicable civil laws.”

Likewise, information about “financial demands for settlements involving allegations of any sexual misconduct by a bishop” must also be forwarded to the nuncio, according to the statement, which emphasized the need for “fraternal support, fraternal challenge and fraternal correction” within a province.

The statement, among other materials, has been under review by the USCCB Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocation, chaired by Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, and will likely undergo revision.

Bishop Thomas Daly

Cardinal Tobin was not available for comment before the Baltimore meeting. Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, a member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Clergy, said the deliberations were confidential, but he stressed that fraternal correction was “more than a friendly pep talk.”

It “involves accountability,” Bishop Daly told the Register. “In the real world,” if you were a business executive who engaged in sexual misconduct or failed to address such behavior in another employee, “you would very often lose your job.”

However, Dominican Father Joseph Fox, vicar of canonical services for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, questioned the need for more extensive reforms, pointing out that each bishop already takes an oath to assume specific oversight responsibilities and that the Code of Canon Law also gives additional authority to the metropolitan archbishops to make sure “faith and ecclesiastical discipline are carefully observed and to notify the Roman Pontiff if there are any abuses.”

Father Fox cited high-profile cases in Palm Beach, Florida, and Santa Rosa, California, among other dioceses, where episcopal oversight was properly exercised in recent decades and bishops stepped down after acknowledging sexual misconduct.

“The legislative, administrative and judicial functioning of [Church] governance belongs by divine ordination to the bishops,” said Father Fox, who implied that it was more important for Church leaders to double down on their oversight responsibilities rather than to give more authority to lay specialists with a background in relevant disciplines, like law enforcement.

The laborious and consequential campaign to revive an investigation into the allegations of abuse against Bishop Hart would seem to give weight to Father Fox’s assertion.

Concrete Measures

But Archbishop Etienne is a strong proponent of additional reforms.

“We must come up with well-defined concrete measures that give people an opportunity to report the misconduct of a bishops or misgovernance of a bishop,” he said.

The Anchorage archbishop believes that such measures must include the creation of a “new body, composed mostly of laypeople,” who investigate episcopal misconduct and negligence “and make their findings known to the nuncio.”

Now, as all eyes are on the U.S. bishops and their plans for reforms, Archbishop Etienne acknowledges the gravity of this unprecedented moment, even as he expressed hope that change was possible.

“The Bible is full of stories of fidelity, infidelity and renewing the fidelity,” he said. “God is calling the Church and the Body of Christ to come back to be renewed.”

In his Alaska province, Archbishop Etienne has proposed that he and his brother bishops meet more frequently, “not only to do business, but to fraternally support each other, to pray together and to celebrate the Eucharist together, and that was warmly received.”

Bishops, he said, must keep their eyes “fixed on Christ, as the Letter to the Hebrews says. But we are sinners, too, and we need to continually devote ourselves to prayer and fraternal support.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.