• Sara Larson

"We’ve Got to Address This." - Archbishop Lori on Listening and Accountability

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore was the final panelist to offer opening comments at the September 25 Notre Dame Forum, "The Church Crisis: Where Are We Now?"

If you're just jumping in here, you can go back and read opening remarks given by the other three panelists in these previous posts:

William Lori has been the Archbishop of Baltimore since 2012. Before being appointed to Baltimore, Lori served as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington and then as Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut. In 2002, he participated in the writing of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ground-breaking Dallas Charter. As he mentioned in these opening remarks, Lori was also recently tasked with overseeing the investigation of Bishop Michael Bransfield of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia. (See my comments at the end of this post for a bit more information about Lori’s role in this investigation, and why I approach his words with quite a bit of skepticism.)

My transcript of Archbishop Lori’s comments can be found below. Lori referenced notes while he spoke but did not read directly from a text, so I have deleted filler words and word repetitions to make his comments easier to read. To hear his remarks for yourself, you can view a video recording of the entire forum here.


"I’ve been a bishop nearly 25 years and in that ministry, there have been a lot of learning curves. But I don’t think any of the learning curves have been as steep as discovering, learning, struggling to deal in some adequate way with the ugly specter of child abuse.

When I became a bishop a long time ago, there were some policies in place, maybe going back as far as the 80s in most dioceses. As has been indicated already tonight, in 2002, with the development of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the Norms, that was a line in the sand. It was an attempt to say that all dioceses, all bishops would adopt a set of policies and procedures in order to deal more adequately, thoroughly, and, God-willing, compassionately with this issue, to try to prevent it. But, as has also been said tonight, it’s one thing to have policies and procedures in place, it’s another thing to live them; it’s another thing to draw out from them the moral values, the moral imperative to address this in the way that God only knows it deserves to be addressed.

Yes, the numbers have gone down, but one case is still too many, and the need remains, and will always remain, not to see the Charter, the Norms, Vos Estis, or any of the other things that are put in place whereby bishops are held accountable simply as policies to be complied with. In the grace of the Holy Spirit, it’s really got to be, on the part of people like me, on the part of my lay co-workers, a conversion of mind and heart. It’s gotta be as much a part of the life of the Church to protect children and to reach out to victim-survivors as evangelization is, as Catholic education is, as raising up vocations is.

One of the big learning curves for me as a bishop (I can speak for myself; maybe I can reflect conversations I have with other bishops, but I can’t speak for every bishop), one of the big things I can say is learning how to listen to victims. I’ve been meeting with victims a long time, going back to 1994-95. And of course I was told almost from the get-go, “You shouldn’t talk, you should listen.” But learning how to listen, learning how to put the victim-survivor in the driver’s seat, learning that I, as the bishop listening to this, cannot fully appreciate the nature of the experience that’s being described to me... Not trying to be the person that has the answer, not trying to be the person who pushes in the conversation or who offers something that might not be wanted by the victim-survivor at that moment… In other words, the victim-survivor has to be in the driver’s seat. It’s not just a question of meeting them; it’s not just a question of affirming - It’s a question of listening, listening deeply, and believing them.

A couple of weeks ago, in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, we were privileged to have Marie Collins come and visit us. Marie used to serve on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. She was in town to give a talk, so I invited her over. I said “I would like to meet you. I would like to talk to you, hear from you, and I’d like you to meet with my colleagues.” We have what’s called “The Monday Afternoon Group.” It’s led by my auxiliary bishop, Bishop Parker; it’s him and four or five lay colleagues. They spend 2 or 3 hours every Monday afternoon, looking at this issue and looking at the Archdiocese’s response to it, learning all the time. Sometimes it’s reviewing files; sometimes it’s looking at what might have come in, whether it’s an abuse case from a volunteer or whether it’s a boundary violation or a vulnerable adult. I said, “You know, you work hard on this, but let’s listen to what Marie has to say.” I invited members of the Independent Review Board that’s been in our diocese (and many dioceses) for many years - lay people who help us, look over our shoulders, make sure we’re trying to do the right thing.

Marie described how when she was in Ireland, she was 13 years old, and she was abused by her parish priest. And she went for years, kept it in, kept it in her mind and heart and soul, and it burned there. Then she got the courage to bring it to a parish priest and to the Church in Ireland. The response was just, just terrible. She described that for us. We were riveted. What also riveted me was how, after going through this crucible - she still suffers, it’s still a part of her life - but she’s dedicating her life, just like Juan Carlos, to helping the Church learn from its past to try to prevent this in the future, to bring about some measure of healing. That’s one form of listening.

Another form of listening - and it’s a learning curve for me - last year we had what I call “The Year of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report” and “The Year of Theodore McCarrick.” The Archdiocese of Baltimore has Pennsylvania on the top of it and the Archdiocese of Washington right below us, so I felt a little bit like a sandwich. It was pretty hard. It is hard.

So I did 18 listening sessions. I sponsored 18 listening sessions all over the Archdiocese. They were long evenings, and they were not easy evenings; they weren't meant to be and they shouldn’t have been.

But I did hear two things loud and clear: Number One - That our people do indeed want bishops to be held accountable, whether it’s for their own misbehavior or for dropping the ball in handling these cases and in being negligent in preferring clericalism and institutional self-protection to reaching out appropriately to those who have been harmed by any one of us, whether it is a priest or a volunteer or a teacher in a school, whoever it might be. Loud and clear: “You bishops have to find a way to be held accountable.” Number Two - More lay voices at the table. I mean, I could have been half asleep for these 18 sessions, and I wouldn’t have missed that.

So, we go to the November Bishops’ Meeting, held in Baltimore, and there’s proposals on the table for holding bishops accountable. I was all in favor of them. I felt that they were in some way responsive to what I had heard in those 18 listening sessions. We get in there, and the Bishops’ Meeting, to put it mildly, gets derailed. And, like a lot of us, we were pretty upset; we were angry about that. The Pope wanted us to take some other steps first, and I think he wanted us to have our proposals become more mature.

But I did go home and got with the auxiliary bishops and with that Monday Group, and I asked the question: “Well, we couldn’t do it on a national level. Is there something that we could do locally? Why don’t we put in an independent third party reporting system, so that if myself or one of the auxiliary bishops in the Archdiocese of Baltimore engages in misbehavior or in misconduct of any kind or is seemingly ignoring an allegation, it gets reported and it doesn’t come to my office, or any office I’m responsible to, but to the two retired judges who sit on the Independent Review Board?” Their job is to report out to law enforcement if that’s appropriate, and also to the Papal Nuncio. Later on, this past June, something similar but perhaps more thought-out was voted on by the U.S. Bishops, who are in the process of implementing it. I hope and pray it will at least set a good direction.

None of these things, in and of themselves, solve the problem. They only set a direction.

I might just add that it fell to me to do the trial run of what’s known as the “Metropolitan Model” - that is to say, that when allegations are made against bishops, there has to be some mechanism for investigating them. The way the Church is set up, you have archbishops, and their archdioceses include smaller dioceses in the surrounding area and that constitutes a Province. The Archbishop is known as the Metropolitan. So, it would normally fall to the Archbishop if there’s an allegation against one of the suffragan bishops to mount an investigation that would use the expertise of lay persons. So came an allegation with regard to one my suffragans, the former bishop of West Virginia, and it fell to me (before there was a Vos Estis) to try to do an investigation.

I did not do it perfectly. But I’m happy to report, however, that the allegations were taken seriously; they were investigated by lay experts, none of whom were in the employ of the church in any way. The report went to Rome in March, and, in what is sort of lightning-speed in the life of the Church, got an answer by mid-July. The Bishop was censured - the first one censured for harassment of vulnerable adults and also financial questions. And a new bishop was put in place a short time later. It was not perfect; it was rough, bumpy, rocky, but it at least shows it can work. It could work.

The final thing I would just like to say is I love the Church. We all love the Church. We love the Church's mission. We believe the Church has come to us from the Lord. We’re also made up of fallible human beings with a lot of weaknesses, a lot of blind spots, and sometimes we’re tragically flawed people. We’ve got to address this. We’ve got to continue being held accountable, because the Church’s mission to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ depends on it."


To be fair, there are a lot of nice thoughts above. I appreciate Archbishop Lori’s reflection on real listening, his call for bishop accountability, and his emphasis on the distinction between adopting policy and undergoing a true change of heart. In general, he knows how to “talk the talk.” His choice to attend numerous listening sessions in his diocese, to get out among the people and hear what they are saying, to face the anger, sadness, and disappointment in person - that was an admirable decision, one that many other U.S. bishops could learn from. The system for reporting allegations against bishops (which was set up by Lori in Baltimore last January after it became clear that a national system was not forthcoming) is imperfect, but a step in the right direction.

However, I can’t help but think of this:

A draft of the report from the Bransfield investigation included the names of clerics who had received significant financial gifts from Bransfield - including Archbishop Lori himself. The investigators thought this was important information to be sent to the Holy See.

But Lori, who was overseeing the investigation, requested that those names be removed from the report. (Lori has since apologized for this action, saying that he “believes now that the suggestion to withhold names of bishops – including his own - who had received monetary gifts was ill-advised and he understands how this can easily be misperceived.”)

Keep this in mind: We would never have known about Lori’s actions without the intrepid investigative reporting of the Washington Post, who obtained copies of both the draft and final reports and reported about the difference here. I think that it’s fair to presume that without this investigative journalism, we would have been kept in the dark about the financial ties linking Bransfield to many prominent churchmen. There are still many questions to be answered about who else might be implicated in Bishop Bransfield’s financial and sexual corruption. But when given an opportunity to reveal some of these ties, Lori instead chose secrecy and self-protection.

If Archbishop Lori wants to speak about accountability, perhaps he should start there.


In my next post about this forum, I’ll share a summary of the dialogue that followed the prepared opening statements by the four panelists. This was definitely the most interesting part of the evening! There were several thoughtful questions from the audience, and Juan Carlos Cruz was particularly fiery in his responses.

Stay tuned to hear more.


“Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.”

- 1 John 3:18

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