An ‘independent commission’ to investigate the bishops? Here are the problems.

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 07, 2018

This week I have seen three separate proposals for the creation of a commission that would investigate the American bishops’ responses to the sex-abuse scandal. Unfortunately all three have serious flaws.

  1. Cardinal Donald Wuerl has suggested that the US bishops’ conference could set up a special commission for the task. It is, frankly, difficult to take this suggestion seriously. The problem is that the US bishops’ conference has lost all credibility on this issue. A new commission, set up by the bishops’ conference, would have zero credibility from the start.
  2. “Bishops alone investigating bishops is not the answer,” recognizes Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany. “To have credibility, a panel would have to be separated from any source of power whose trustworthiness might potentially be compromised.” Therefore Bishop Scharfenberger recommends an independent commission of lay Catholics, and vows to “use every power my office holds…to further this change.” That’s a much more promising option, but the proposal would encounter serious practical problems.
    • First, who would appoint the members of this new commission? Would they be appointed by the same conference of bishops whose performance they would be scrutinizing? The danger there should be apparent. (If you received notice that the IRS was planning to audit our tax returns, wouldn’t you love the opportunity to choose the auditors yourself?) There is, unfortunately, no shortage of prominent Catholics who would defer to the bishops’ wishes, and no guarantee that an “independent” commission would aggressively pursue the truth even when bishops became uncomfortable.
    • Second, an independent commission would not—and under the Code of Canon Law could not—have enforcement power. Even the US Conference of Catholic Bishops could not compel individual bishops to cooperate with the panel, or to obey its orders.
  3. Karl Keating has an answer to that 2nd problem: an independent commission of lay Catholics that would be given subpoena power, able to compel testimony and to demand resignations. It is an attractive proposal, but—as Keating realizes—not a terribly realistic one. How could the bishops be convinced to hand over their fate to lay leaders? And where would this commission get its subpoena power?

Maybe the practical difficulties of the Scharfenberger proposal can be resolved. Maybe there is some other option, which has not yet been brought forward. But to simplify matters, I have compiled a list of the people who have the authority necessary both to demand the bishops’ testimony and, if necessary, to require their resignations:

  • The Bishop of Rome

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: Carole Foryst - Aug. 09, 2018 4:15 PM ET USA

    How about relying on the civil justice system?

  • Posted by: brownjudith2930 - Aug. 07, 2018 10:53 PM ET USA


  • Posted by: [email protected] - Aug. 07, 2018 10:32 PM ET USA

    The Bishop of Rome has had many opportunities to act and h was slow to move. What makes us believe this Pope would act for good of the Church and clean up this mess. There are many in Vatican that support this criminal behavior. They must be known to him.

  • Posted by: jan02 - Aug. 07, 2018 8:42 PM ET USA

    @Frodo1945- Pope Francis sending Archbishop Scicluna (or someone like him) sounds like a good idea to me. We pray to the Lord for His Holy Will to be done in all things.

  • Posted by: shrink - Aug. 07, 2018 6:47 PM ET USA

    The independent commission has always existed, in theory. It is vested in every priest, bishop, and pope who knows who, what, when, where and how--or any combination thereof. Those who know do not have the courage to act honorably, that is independently--this has been the problem all along. The perps are disgraceful, and those in the know lack the courage to call them out. The carnage to the faithful will continue until the whole house of cards finishes collapsing.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Aug. 07, 2018 4:40 PM ET USA

    The Bishop of Rome should send Archbishop Scicluna here. Give him a hotline phone number. Tell the bishops that anyone who will not cooperate with Scicluna, or who Scicluna thinks is stonewalling him, should send in their resignation, immediately. Scicluna outed Maciel and the Chilian bishops. He is the only one in the church who has credibility to do an investigation.