BALTIMORE — The nation's Roman Catholic bishops convened a high-stakes meeting Tuesday under pressure to confront the child sexual abuse crisis that has disillusioned many churchgoers, with one scholar warning: "We find ourselves at a turning point, a critical moment in our history."
How the bishops confront the problem "will determine in many ways the future vibrancy of the church and whether or not trust in your leadership can be restored," Francesco Cesareo, an academic who chairs a national sex-abuse review board set up by the bishops, said as the four-day gathering began.
Key proposals on the agenda call for compassionate pastoral care for abuse victims, a new abuse reporting system, and a larger role for lay experts in holding bishops accountable. Votes on the proposals are expected on Wednesday and Thursday.
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.
Advocates for abuse victims have urged the U.S. bishops to go further by requiring that suspicions be reported to police and prosecutors, too.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the bishops' conference and head of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese, said he is optimistic major progress will be made this week. He commended the pope for laying out some worldwide guidelines for combating abuse while giving leeway for the U.S. bishops to work out the details.
Among the agenda items is a proposal to create an independent, third-party entity that would review allegations of abuse. Cesareo said all abuse-related allegations concerning bishops should be reported to civil authorities first and then to a review board.
The bishops will also be voting on a proposal to encourage — but not require — the involvement of lay experts in handling significant abuse allegations.
Cesareo said that including the laity is critical if the bishops are to regain public trust. Otherwise, he said, it's essentially "bishops policing bishops."
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.
By the center's estimates, there were 76.3 million Catholics in the U.S. last year, down from 81.2 million in 2005. The church 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 in August detailed hundreds of cases of alleged abuse.
In February, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington was expelled from the priesthood for sexually abusing minors and seminarians, and investigators are trying to determine if senior Catholic officials 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.
DiNardo, at a news conference Tuesday, defended his actions in Houston and the bishops' efforts to restore credibility.
"The Houston situation strikes me as very distinctive. I have very intense disagreements with what has been presented," he said. "But from our own local church, I've tried to be very straightforward with my people. ... We need to put together, for lack of a very word, a package — a whole way in which we deal with the issues of transparency."
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 recent report. "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."
Coincidentally, the second-largest denomination in the U.S. — the Southern Baptist Convention — also opened its national meeting on Tuesday, gathering in Birmingham, Alabama, 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.