The nation’s two largest religious dominations will convene meetings this week to discuss the issue of clergy sexual abuse, amid wide-ranging scandals that have severely damaged their reputations.
According to CNN, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which represents about 51 million Roman Catholics in the United States, will begin its Annual Spring Meeting today in Baltimore, Maryland.
The festering clergy sexual abuse scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church for decades appeared to reach critical mass last year, when a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailed credible accusations against hundreds of priests throughout the state, as well as cover-ups by church officials that allowed the abuse to go unchecked and unpunished for decades.
Subsequent revelations of clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups in Texas, West Virginia, and elsewhere have only added to the clamor for change.
The Baltimore meeting will focus on accountability for bishops, who traditionally have been given a wide berth to handle clergy misconduct. Among the proposals up for debate: a third-party system to report abuse or misconduct by bishops; a way for bishops to investigate those reports; a new policy to discipline bishops who have already retired or been removed from ministry; and finally, a promise to hold themselves accountable.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is facing a serious credibility problem of its own. That’s because its current president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, was recently accused of mishandling clergy sexual abuse claims in an expose published by the AP.
Just last November, in fact, police raided Dinardo’s headquarters looking for “secret archives” related to a priest who has been accused of molesting children.
Clergy abuse victims and their advocates have viewed Dinardo’s repeated denials of wrongdoing with quite a bit of skepticism.
“It is very hard to see how the conference can continue this way, with a president who is even worse than a lame duck,” Massimo Faggioli, a church historian at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, told CNN. “The credibility of the U.S. bishops is in freefall, which can only be stopped by a visible change in leadership.”
The Southern Baptist Convention will also kick off its annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, today.
The denomination, which represents more than 15 million Americans, has been rocked by its own clergy sexual abuse scandal in recent years. Like Catholic bishops, Southern Baptist pastors operate with a great deal of autonomy. According to a report published by the Convention last week, that autonomy has allowed many to avoid taking appropriate actions in response to credible abuse allegations.
“The cause of sexual abuse in the SBC is rooted in our culture of casual indifference to predatory sexual behavior,” wrote Susan Codone, an abuse survivor from Georgia. “This indifference is the expressionless face of denial and silence.”
Attendees at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting will be asked to vote on several measures to improve accountability among pastors and other church leaders.
One proposal, for example, would add “indifference to sexual abuse” as cause for expelling an individual from the church. “Indifference” would include employing a convicted sex offender, allowing a convicted sex offender to work as a volunteer with children, employing someone who covered up sex crimes, and willfully disregarding child abuse reporting laws.
Another would create a year-round committee to review misconduct claims, which are currently only addressed during the Convention’s annual meeting.