• Sara Larson

THIS is the Problem: On Dolan, DiMarzio, and Ingroup Bias

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered for their Fall General Assembly in November 2018, everyone was scrambling to respond to the renewed sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The McCarrick scandal had made abundantly clear that we needed some system of oversight for bishops, some way for allegations to be reported and taken seriously by the Church. There was much debate about possible ways this could be handled, including ideas that involved a national lay oversight board to address allegations against bishops. Then Cardinal Blaise Cupich floated an alternative proposal, one that would rely on the metropolitan (the archbishop in a geographic province) to investigate any allegations made against the suffragan bishops of his area. Ultimately, the meeting ended with nothing decided, while the U.S. bishops waited to hear more from the Vatican.

In May 2019, Pope Francis released the muto proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi, which enshrined as church law the “metropolitan model” for handling allegations against bishops. These new rules mandated a system for investigating allegations of abuse or mishandling abuse cases, but they did not require any type of lay involvement or oversight.

The June 2019 USCCB meeting focused heavily on implementation of Vos Estis in the United States, specifically setting up a third-party reporting system to collect allegations and send them to the metropolitan bishop for investigation. There were still plenty of questions, objections, and concerns being raised about this overall approach, although there was no getting around the basic structure decreed by the Vatican.

By November 2019, the USCCB discussion focused mainly on details of implementation of this new system, with a goal of launching in Spring 2020.

Then, on March 16, 2020, just as the country was beginning to realized the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, the USCCB officially launched a website and hotline for making reports against bishops: Catholic Bishop Abuse Reporting Service. As the website explains to potential reporters: “Your report will be forwarded to the proper Church authority, usually a Metropolitan archbishop (or a Senior Suffragan bishop if the report is about the Metropolitan, or if the Metropolitan See is vacant). All of the information you provide will be forwarded without any editing or revisions. At the same time, your report will be forwarded to a lay person who has been designated to assist the bishop in receiving reports. Some reports, such as those involving minors, will be reported to law enforcement.” Once the independent system filters a report to the metropolitan, the investigation is in his hands.

So, this is the system that is now in place.

I have said many times that I do not support this model for handling allegations against bishops. After so many years of scandal and coverup, it is astonishing to me that anyone would think bishops investigating other bishops is the best way to move forward. Including one lay person in receiving the report at the metropolitan level is no guarantee of accountability, especially because this lay person is hand-picked by the metropolitan bishop himself and may even be one of his employees.

(Note: The USCCB-appointed National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People was very clear about their objections to this model in their report at the June 2019 meeting: “The NRB did not support the concept of the metropolitan model for handling allegations against bishops… The NRB remains uncomfortable with allowing bishops to review allegations against other bishops as this essentially means bishops policing bishops.”)

Just to be clear, my objection to this model does not stem from a conviction that all bishops are corrupt and will intentionally mishandle allegations brought before them. I actually believe that some metropolitan bishops, upon receiving an allegation against one of their suffragan bishops, will treat the investigation with integrity.

However, we cannot rely on a system that simply assumes that every bishop will do the right thing.

This is not just because some bishops may actively engage in cover up and corruption. It’s also because of the human tendency to trust and favor those who are part of our “ingroup” - the circle of people with whom we share deeper commonalities and connections. This "ingroup bias" is completely natural and understandable; it’s easier to identify with and trust those with whom we have relationships or who share our worldview. Of course it’s going to be hard to believe a horrible allegation from a stranger against a person you know and trust. This is exactly why we have to be so cautious about asking people to hold their own ingroup accountable for allegations that often come from someone they consider an “outsider.”

(Of course, one obvious need is for all Catholics to broaden our sense of who’s “in” and who’s “out” - and to stop treating anyone bringing an allegation against a church leader as an outsider. But that’s another blog post entirely.)


Case in point:

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has been entrusted with investigating recent allegations against Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn that he abused a minor in New Jersey in the 1970s.

I have no idea if these allegations are true. Research shows that false accusations of sexual abuse are rare - but not non-existent. However, the truth - or falsehood - of these particular allegations is not the point. This is:

When Cardinal Dolan spoke about the DiMarzio investigation on his radio show “Conversations with Cardinal Dolan,” this is what he had to say:

“I love the guy, he’s a good friend, he’s never had an accusation against him his whole life… But in November, somebody made an accusation from way, way, way, way, back - 48 years or so ago - and, as much as Bishop DiMarzio said ‘This is preposterous, this is ridiculous, this is unjust,’ darn it, we have to take it seriously. We promised we would.”

Read that again: “I love the guy, he’s a good friend, he’s never had an accusation against him his whole life.”

Now, tell me, do we really think this is the person who should be in charge of the investigation? Even if Cardinal Dolan hires excellent independent investigators, even if he takes the whole process seriously, even if the allegations themselves are false - do we really think that this is the best way to make sure we’re uncovering the truth - and rebuilding trust as well?

(Update, 4/3/20: We've had some interesting conversation on the Facebook page about Dolan's tone and intention with these words, so I thought it would be helpful to provide a link to the audio, so you can listen for yourself if you would like. You can find the conversation here, beginning around 9:45 in the January 20 episode.)

Can you imagine a scenario where the person overseeing the investigation in a civil case publicly states, at the outset of the process, “I love the guy, he’s a good friend”? Wouldn’t we immediately remove him from oversight of that investigation? Wouldn’t we put someone else in charge, someone who has no previous relationship with the accused, someone who could be a bit more objective?

We certainly would. But in the Catholic Church, the investigation will go on, led by a "good friend" of the accused.

THIS is the problem. This is not a system we can rely on to uncover the truth.

Of course, in some cases the civil authorities may conduct their own investigation and bring the truth to light. But this will always be dependent on the applicable state laws and statute of limitations, as well as the nature of the allegation itself. There's no guarantees there either.

We still have a long way to go to ensure justice for those who have been abused.


God of justice, help your people to seek the truth and not settle for anything less.


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