Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Holding bishops accountable: the next steps

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 27, 2015

A newly ordained bishop, appointed to head an American diocese, knows one thing for certain: He cannot ignore reports of sexual abuse. That’s good.

However the bishop also knows that he can, with impunity, ignore reports of liturgical abuse, or doctrinal abuse, or educational abuse. That’s not so good.

The sex-abuse crisis has taught the American hierarchy—indeed, the Church as a whole—something about accountability. Thus far, unfortunately, the lesson has been applied very narrowly, to sexual abuse alone.

Imagine what would happen if, each year, every diocese was audited to ensure that the bishop followed up on all credible complaints of liturgical abuse. Imagine independent committees of prominent laymen, appointed to review the diocesan files and determine whether standards were being upheld.

In other words, imagine a diocese in which, if a lay Catholic wrote to his bishop to report some flagrant liturgical abuse, he would have a reasonable expectation that the bishop would address the problem—because if he didn’t, he’d be called on the carpet for his negligence.

The system that holds bishops accountable for their handling of sex-abuse complaints is imperfect. But at least there is a system: an effort, however flawed, to promote accountability. That’s a good thing; there should be more of it.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: skall391825 - Jun. 03, 2015 1:58 AM ET USA

    That is an excellent idea, but most bishops would continue to ignore liturgical, doctrinal and educational abuse because the secular media would just yawn--they want only red meat scandals which can hurt the Church. Moreover, most bishops would never appoint INDEPENDENT committees of laymen to review the diocesan files to determine compliance. Still, if Francis would insist on it, it would be well worth a shot. Good thinking.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 30, 2015 10:46 AM ET USA

    Phil, please define "prominent laymen." A prominent layman called to tell me he was pulling his daughter out of my CCD class. On pro-life Sunday I had asked my students to not send the preprinted pro-life postcard to their congressmen, but instead to send a personal letter. The student's father told me that he and his family were still struggling with that pro-life thing. He then asked me if I knew who he was and how much money he donates to the Church. He hung up the phone huffing and puffing.

  • Posted by: LCRich - May. 29, 2015 9:03 PM ET USA

    Accountability is a very important quality or state of a fully functional organization. Decades of my organizational experience tells me that where accountability is absent, leadership is absent. Good shepherds lead their sheep. They do not drive them nor let them ramble without guidance. I pray for strong leadership leading to Teachings accountability such as we publicly see with Cardinal Burke and Archbishop Cordileone.

  • Posted by: JimKcda - May. 29, 2015 6:37 PM ET USA

    Great article Phil! However, my initial response is, without any disrespect, "imagine if pigs could fly!"

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - May. 29, 2015 5:48 PM ET USA

    This is an excellent proposal. Bishops enjoy that lethal combination of power and lack of accountability, and it works no better in the Church than it does in secular life. I sympathize with Gil125's pessimism, but re-ordering things along these lines is vital, and we've got to start sometime. To your plan I'd only add that the "prominent laymen" need to be chosen for their orthodoxy and held accountable too.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - May. 27, 2015 3:05 PM ET USA

    What a dreamer you are. Look what happened to Archbishop Cordileone when he tried to reduce doctrinal and educational abuse. Apparently because of the reaction he skipped the march for marriage in D.C. this year. And the priests of my parish continue to ad lib large parts of the Mass.