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Metropolitan Model vs. National Model: A Primer

by Dan

During the last half of 2018, sexual abuse and misconduct on the part of clergy became the most-discussed issue in the Catholic Church. These have been high-profile issues for nearly two decades, and during that time many details of the abuse crisis have been explored in-depth. What made this last year unique, however, was the painful realization of the extent to which failures of episcopal leadership have contributed to and compounded the crisis.

This realization unfolded in tandem with the recognition that there is a lack of well-defined, enforceable policies and procedures for handling accusations of abuse, misconduct, or other grave failures of leadership by Catholic bishops. The desire for reform has driven a demand for the mandatory involvement of lay experts, especially in the form of review boards having special authority to receive, review, and investigate complaints against bishops on a more local level.

The precise details of how these review panels would be established, the scope of authority that they would be given, and the procedures for handling the results of any investigation are all relatively open-ended questions, which are currently being developed. Catholics attempting to follow the news, however, may have noticed the fact that two competing models have emerged, without necessarily understanding what these two models are, or how they are different.

Here, therefore, we will give a brief overview of these models, in order to further empower Catholics to understand and engage in the debate over these developments.

In both models, the basic procedures and scope of authority given to review boards would presumably share strong similarities. In both models, review boards would presumably feature the assistance of qualified lay persons. The primary (if not the only) necessary difference between the two models comes down to their fundamental structure.

The National Model

Under the “national model”, there would be a single national review panel established at the level of the national conference of bishops. In the United States, this conference is frequently referred to as the USCCB. As with all conferences of bishops, the USCCB is a “permanent institution” under modern canon law, composed of the “group of bishops of some nation or certain territory” – in this case, the United States – through which all of the bishops of that defined territory “jointly exercise certain pastoral functions… according to the norm of law”. (CIC canon 447) Under this model, therefore, all complaints against bishops within the territory of the United States would be handled by a single review board, theoretically constituted with a unique and unprecedented degree of authority at the level of the national conference.

The Metropolitan Model

Provinces and dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Each color represents one of the 32 Latin Rite provinces. (

Under the “metropolitan model”, in contrast, review boards would be established at the level of each ecclesiastical province, rather than at the level of the national conference. Ecclesiastical provinces are smaller, less-commonly-known structures. In the United States, however, there are more than 177 Latin Catholic dioceses: these are grouped into 32 ecclesiastical provinces, with each province containing anywhere from 2 to 10 dioceses. Within each province, there is one diocese designated as the archdiocese: and it is the (arch)bishop of that diocese who then presides over the whole ecclesiastical province as the metropolitan.

The ordinary role of the metropolitan within the province is “to exercise vigilance so that the faith and ecclesiastical discipline are observed carefully and to inform the Roman Pontiff of abuses, if there are any”, although “where circumstances demand it, the Apostolic See can endow a metropolitan with special functions and power”. (CIC canon 435-436) Under this model, all complaints against bishops within the territory of the United States would be handled by the local archdiocesan or provincial review board, assisting the metropolitan archbishop.

Comparing the Models

Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each model quickly becomes a complicated matter. For instance, it might seem obvious that the national model is superior, simply because it requires establishing policies and procedures for only a single review board, rather than (under the metropolitan model) for no less than 32 review boards. However, since the 2002 Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, nearly every diocese in the United States already has an established review board to advise the bishop: therefore, making greater use of already-existing review boards might be more efficient.

The metropolitan model also has a strong theoretical advantage: It seems to better reflect the principle of subsidiarity, by empowering existing canonical structures to handle complaints on a more local basis that is more easily accessible to both victims and accused bishops.

At the same time, the metropolitan model has an inherent complication: If the metropolitan archbishop himself is ever accused (as was the case for former-archbishop Theodore McCarrick), that complaint would need to be handled by some other bishop previously designated for this purpose within the province.

Another criticism of the metropolitan model is the natural danger – precisely because authority is being kept within the province – that local bishops might not be a consistently unbiased authority when called upon to judge complaints about their brother bishops, with whom they ordinarily strive to collaborate and maintain good relationships.

Even more pessimistically, some might be concerned about the potential danger of cronyism, if metropolitan bishops have any authority whatsoever to appoint and remove, or otherwise exert any degree of influence over the members of their review boards.

Finally, there is the simple practical concern that having a multiplicity of review boards across dozens of provinces might risk the danger of different review boards having different standards, unequal degrees of lay expertise, and unequal experience – whereas a single national review board would naturally tend to be more unified and rigorously consistent on all points.

As present, both models are being developed in greater detail, presumably along with solutions that could be implemented to minimize (or eliminate) each disadvantage. When the details of each model have been finalized, the real debate over which model to adopt will begin.

Further Reading:


YArespond is a group of Catholic young adults based in the Twin Cities seeking informed and holistic ways to respond to the abuse crises in our Church. We focus on a fourfold response consisting of prayer, education, dialogue, and action. Currently, we are working on developing resources for parishes and ministries to host events and dialogues. Learn more:

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