The nation's Roman Catholic bishops overwhelmingly, though not unanimously, approved a new framework Thursday for policing their own conduct, hoping it would be enough to stanch a series of scandals over the last year that exposed sexual misconduct and inaction within their ranks.
The measures include a new code of conduct, guidelines for restricting the ministry of retired problem prelates, and a system through which the church will investigate bishops accused of abuse or of mishandling complaints involving others.
But victims and their advocates responded with a collective shrug, saying the reforms still leave too much power in the hands of a hierarchy that has repeatedly failed to hold itself accountable.
"It's still bishops policing bishops," said Shaun Dougherty of Johnstown, Pa., one of three clergy sex-abuse victims who met with leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops late Wednesday. "It's like hiring the Gambino crime family to investigate the mob."
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the bishops' conference and archbishop of Galveston-Houston, described the measures as a "work in progress" and said they will be reevaluated in three years.
"Our work will not conclude until the number of sexual abuse cases is zero," he said.
The adopted reforms come after a tumultuous year for the church, one that saw top officials vilified for remaining silent about now-defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick's decades of alleged sexual misconduct and a damning grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania that inspired similar probes in 20 other states.
But despite the momentous crisis of confidence that preceded this week's gathering in Baltimore, the debate that played out over the past three days was decidedly muted.
Discussion among the prelates was more collegial than confrontational. Most measures passed with only a single dissenting vote, cast by anonymous, electronic ballot. And only a few demonstrators bothered to show up each day outside the waterfront hotel where the conference took place.
In that way, the scene was a far cry from the U.S. hierarchy's attempt to come up with solutions at a similar gathering in November. Then, a last-minute order from the Vatican killed plans to establish an independent board of civilian investigators to handle bishop misconduct claims, drawing victim outrage and hand-wringing from some prelates that bordered on outright dissent.
Vatican officials feared such a civilian-led body would usurp the pope's authority, and instead, came up with their own model – one cemented by papal edict last month – that relies on archbishops to handle such investigations.
The measures approved Thursday largely focused on how that new structure would be implemented in the United States. The only serious debate to emerge centered on to what extent lay Catholics should be involved in future investigations.
"Lay involvement should be mandatory to make darn sure that we bishops don't harm the church in the way that bishops have harmed the church in the past, especially in light of what we've become aware of this past year," said Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Mo.
In the end, the bishops voted that the 32 metropolitan archbishops in the United States "should" consult with civilian investigators and advisers at the initial phase of the process. But they stopped short of mandating it.
"There is an encouragement that lay people be involved, but we're not going beyond what the Holy Father has given," said Bishop Robert Deeley, bishop of Portland, Maine, and chairman of one of the committees responsible for drafting the reforms.
The other measures adopted Thursday included a code of conduct that carried what one bishop described more as "moral weight" than legal. In it, the bishops pledged to commit themselves to the same "zero-tolerance" standards for abuse that they imposed upon priests in 2002. However, it established no framework for holding active bishops to that commitment.
A separate set of guidelines outlines steps bishops could take to restrict the ministry, movements, and ability to hear confession of retired prelates predecessors in their dioceses who have with records of sexual misconduct or inaction. Under church law, those retirees prelates are still entitled to room, board, and health benefits until their deaths.
Bishop Robert Finn – the former bishop of St. Louis, and the only U.S. prelate to have been criminally convicted for mishandling a sex abuse complaint – raised eyebrows this week as he mingled with the crowd at a meeting designed to end decades of cover-up. Under the guidelines passed Thursday, the president of the bishops' conference could ban him from future meetings.
How successfully the reforms will restore trust with the nation's 70 million Catholics after a year marked by one disappointment after another remains to be seen.
A model similar to the one institutionalized Thursday has already been used in two high-profile investigations – the probe that led to the expulsion of McCarrick from the priesthood in February and a second involving sexual-harassment claims against former West Virginia bishop and Philadelphia native Michael J. Bransfield.
In both, a local archbishop appointed by the Vatican oversaw the investigation with aid from civilian advisers. But critics say the Bransfield inquiry only highlighted a central flaw in the new reforms, which they fear still grants bishops too much leeway to protect each other.
Led by Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, that investigation discovered secret payments Bransfield had made to top church leaders, including Lori himself. But Lori scrubbed the report of any reference identifying who had received money when he submitted his findings to Rome.
He later admitted he made a mistake after a Washington Post report last week exposed that decision.
Despite that, Deeley held the Bransfield investigation up as a model.
"I don't think it undermined the success of the investigation and what it accomplished," he said.