Episode 12: The Ombudsperson
Welcome to 2019 and Episode 12.
Last year we experienced a crisis of confidence in the Catholic bishops. The latest drop in confidence resulted when additional abuse scandals were made public. These scandals reached up into the level of bishops.
During this latest crisis numerous suggestions were floated that called for increased participation in oversight by the laity. Even some bishops who struggled to find solutions to managing these scandals suggested the laity had a role to play.
In many cases the call for lay involvement was itself a “no confidence vote.” The suggestions seemed to say, “The bishops have failed. They have not handled the crisis. Now we need other solutions.”
The sentiments of those seeking new solutions can easily be understood. But so far, the new options on the table are underwhelming. There seems to be as much confusion as there is passion.
One valid solution has been consistently overlooked — an Ombudsman. The use of an ombudsperson is well known and highly regarded within the dispute resolution profession.
Large institutions, such as universities, typically employ ombudspersons. But the Catholic Church lacks such a program. I believe only one ombudsperson works for a diocese in the entire nation. And it was a judge hearing an abuse case that ordered that position filled.
The Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People of 2002 — an earlier response to abuse scandals — set up an office of victims’ assistance that overlaps the ombud’s role. In retrospect, perhaps it would have been better to create an “office of the ombudsman” with broader duties and powers.
Ombudspersons are neutrals — in the sense that they do not represent the interests of any one party. They work simultaneously to better the institution and to better the lives of those the institution serves. They enjoy significant autonomy.
Ombudspersons are not in the chain of command — they are not in a position to be coerced by others who make decisions that benefit narrow interests. Instead, they are charged with the “big picture” overall health of the institution. Thus, in the case of the Catholic Church, an ombudsperson would seek to serve the overall Body of Christ, the faith.
Like mediators, ombudspersons employ various forms of confidentiality. This opens the door for people to be more candid about their real concerns. People have less fear of retribution. Thus, ombudspersons, following strict guidelines, use confidentiality to increase disclosure, which helps them better understand the actual situation.
An ombudsperson must be terrific at assessment and evaluation. They are trained interviewers who use deep listening skills to identify the true nature of an expressed concern.
In the faith setting a high percentage of cases — perhaps 80% — will turn out to be about personal challenges. Once an ombudsperson unpacks their complaint, a person will realize that they have been experiencing a difficult stretch on their faith journey. These difficulties will have caused them to unleash negative emotions on another parishioner, a priest, or the Church in general.
An ombudsperson can direct them to the pastoral counseling or spiritual direction they need. This differs from the victim’s assistance route. Once a person appeals to victim’s assistance, they take on a “victim” identity. They become invested in their report — before they sort out the actual situation. This limits their options.
In contrast, ombudspersons offer additional options. They help people disentangle the adverse factors in play. A disgruntled person may need to be sent to the office for victim’s assistance. Or they may need to mediate a dispute with a pastor. They may need guidance or training in how to work better with fellow parishioners. Or they may need help in overcoming complications with a marriage tribunal case. A person may simply need to know their observations and thoughts will be conveyed to the bishop. They may need the satisfaction of contributing to the overall welfare of the Church.
Thus, working with an ombudsperson might result in a variety of outcomes. The important factor is that the faithful know where to go to begin their search for solutions. If they face a problem or upset they need to know they head to the “office of the ombudsperson.”
For this system to work the ombudsperson must be well publicized. All people in the diocese must know “this is where I go” when I’m having difficulty and need someone to hear my concerns.
An ombudsperson creates significant value for a diocese. There is less conflict. There is greater satisfaction, joy, and community. Skillful triage reduces the unnecessary traffic that may burden a diocesan office. Situations are managed appropriately, often with referrals to pastoral counseling and spiritual direction.
As noted, the triage of cases requiring pastoral counseling and spiritual direction reduces unnecessary “traffic” that typically burdens management. The personal challenges of individuals do not end up “lighting fires” that become a drain on staff. A diocese runs more efficiently.
The presence of a working ombudsperson signals the bishop cares about lay concerns. It signals the bishop wants to hear from his flock. Laypersons no longer believe they are cut off, ignored, or isolated. Confidence in leadership soars.
An ombudsperson, while preserving confidentiality, keeps the bishop informed about the overall health of the diocese. Trouble spots are identified in a timely fashion so the bishop may defuse problems before they blow up into scandal.
In essence, with the help of an ombudsperson, the bishop becomes connected to the life of the diocese, the Body of Christ, so he is better able to gauge the health of the diocese. Using an ombudsperson, the bishop gains thousands and thousands of new eyes with which to monitor the flock he shepherds. With improved vision and perception, he is better able to detect wolves that threaten the flock.
In light of the recent renewed attention on abuse scandals, both laity and bishops alike have called for new accountability systems that include lay involvement. But I have yet to hear anyone suggest placing an ombudsperson in every diocese — even though the model has been proven effective in so many large organizations.
Some protesters might object to this plan. They may feel it does not include the powerful oversight required in an era when bishops are swept up by scandal. That objection, however, overlooks the power of increased transparency that the ombudsman model brings. There is much more power in this model than first meets the eye.
The ombudspersons selected for this work cannot be drawn from the general public. Even trained ombudspersons do not have the specific skills required. Instead, those hired will need to train in mediation, pastoral counseling, and spiritual direction — the type of services delivered by the proposed Assisi Centers.
The sooner we get to work on this plan, the sooner scandal will abate and the sooner we will see pews filled and overflowing.
Reflect on times when you felt you needed someone to talk to about events transpiring in your parish or your diocese or the church worldwide. And reflect on how you might contribute to bringing about an ombudsperson model in your diocese.
Until next time, may God bless you and bring you peace.