BALTIMORE - The nation's Roman Catholic bishops convened a high-stakes meeting Tuesday under pressure to confront the ever-widening child sexual abuse crisis that has disillusioned many churchgoers.
A key question at the four-day gathering: How willing are the bishops to give lay experts a major role in holding the clergy accountable?
Francesco Cesareo, an academic who chairs a national sex-abuse review board set up by the bishops, told the meeting's opening session that the involvement of laity is critical if the bishops are to regain public trust after "a period of intense suffering" for the church.
He said the review board "remains uncomfortable with allowing bishops to review allegations against other bishops - this essentially means bishops policing bishops."
"We find ourselves at a turning point, a critical moment in our history, which will determine in many ways the future vibrancy of the church and whether or not trust in your leadership can be restored," Cesareo said.
The deliberations will be guided by a new law that Pope Francis issued on May 9. It requires priests and nuns worldwide to report sexual abuse as well as cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities. It also calls for allegations against bishops to be reported to the Vatican and a supervisory bishop.
Among the many agenda items in Baltimore is a proposal to create an independent, third-party entity that would review allegations of abuse. Cesareo says all abuse-related allegations concerning bishops should be reported to civil authorities first and then to a review board.
A national survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center illustrates the extent of disenchantment among U.S. Catholics. The March poll found about one-fourth of Catholics saying they had scaled back Mass attendance and reduced donations because of the abuse crisis, and only 36% said U.S. bishops had done a good or excellent job in responding.
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, an authoritative source of Catholic-related data, 45% of U.S. Catholics attended Mass at least once a month in 2018, down from 57% in 1990.
According to the center's estimates, there were 76.3 million Catholics in the U.S. last year, down from 81.2 million in 2005. It remains the largest denomination in the U.S.
Events of the past year have posed unprecedented challenges for the U.S. bishops. Many dioceses have become targets of state investigations since a Pennsylvania grand jury report in August detailed hundreds of cases of alleged abuse.
In February, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., was expelled from the priesthood for sexually abusing minors and seminarians, and investigators are seeking to determine if some Catholic VIPs covered up his transgressions.
Another investigative team recently concluded that Michael Bransfield , a former bishop in West Virginia, engaged in sexual harassment and financial misconduct over many years.
Even DiNardo, who heads the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese, has been entangled in controversy. Last week, The Associated Press reported a Houston woman's claim that he mishandled her allegations of sexual and financial misconduct against his deputy.
The archdiocese said it "categorically rejects" the story as biased. However, the archdiocese later said it would review the married woman's allegations that the deputy, Monsignor Frank Rossi, continued to hear her confessions after luring her into a sexual relationship, a potentially serious crime under church law.
In brief remarks opening the Baltimore meeting, DiNardo said the bishops "face the task of rooting the evil of sexual abuse from the church."
Advocates for abuse victims, while pleased by the pope's edict in May, have urged the U.S. bishops to go further by requiring that church staff report their suspicions to police and prosecutors, too.
Catholic leaders argue, with some statistical backing, that instances of clergy sex abuse have declined sharply with the adoption in 2002 of guidelines for dealing with such cases.
"The Church is a far safer place today than when we launched the Charter," DiNardo contended in a recently released report on abuse. "Programs of background checks, safe environment trainings, review boards enforcing zero tolerance policies, and victims assistance require hundreds of dedicated, professional teams with child safety as their highest priority."
The scandal involving McCarrick remains particularly troublesome for the bishops. Cesareo, in his opening remarks, urged them to provide a public update on the Vatican's investigation into who knew about - but did not report - his sexual misconduct over the years.
Coincidentally, the second-largest denomination in the U.S. - the Southern Baptist Convention - also opened its national meeting on Tuesday with an agenda similarly focused on sex abuse. The SBC had 14.8 million members in 2018, down about 192,000 from the previous year.
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