As the U.S. bishops gathered for their general assembly in Baltimore on Nov. 12-14, much…
At Baltimore assembly, bishops to tackle abuse
When the U.S. bishops meet Nov. 12-14 in Baltimore, the spotlight will be on an issue that has dogged them for years — clergy sexual abuse. This time, though, the bishops’ focus won’t be on erring priests but on themselves. The events of this year have left a widespread perception, shared by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, that the Church is now experiencing a leadership crisis that stretches all the way to Rome.
The gathering in Baltimore will be the regular fall assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. As such, the agenda will include routine matters like electing committee chairmen, approving a budget and receiving reports. But abuse and the crisis of leadership almost certainly will be the assembly’s main themes. The bishops will consider plans for a probe of disgraced Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, as well as proposed new sanctions for bishops who have either committed abuse themselves or covered up abuse by priests.
Summer of scandal
Incidents and issues relating to sex abuse have multiplied since last summer, when Archbishop McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals amid accusations of abusing minors and sexually abusing and harassing seminarians. McCarrick, 88, was archbishop of Washington from 2000-06 and is now living in seclusion in a remote monastery in Kansas while awaiting a Church trial.
Not long after the McCarrick story broke, a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report containing graphic accounts of clergy sexual abuse and episcopal cover-up in six dioceses over a span of 70 years. Attorneys general in numerous other states are now moving to conduct similar investigations, in most places with the cooperation of the Church.
In September, Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, resigned in the face of allegations of “sexual misconduct” with adults. Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori was named administrator of the diocese and tasked with overseeing the Church’s investigation of Bishop Bransfield.
In October, McCarrick’s successor in Washington, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, resigned as archbishop in the face of criticism for his handling of some abuse cases in Pittsburgh, where he was bishop before coming to Washington 12 years ago. Pope Francis accepted his resignation but also praised him and named him apostolic administrator of the archdiocese until a successor is named.
Lately, too, there have been signs of fraying nerves among the bishops, including the unusual spectacle of members of the hierarchy criticizing each other publicly. That happened when Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston, responding to a media inquiry about alleged mishandling of abuse cases by Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, said he was “deeply concerned” and would refer the matter to the nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, for Vatican review. Cardinal O’Malley, who is currently looking into allegations of sexual misconduct at three seminaries in his archdiocese, heads the papal commission on child protection. Bishop Malone snapped back that the cardinal was reacting to television reports that “misrepresented the truth” and had failed to contact the diocese to “hear our side of the story.”
|A Word on Racism|
While the agenda is expected to be dominated by the abuse issue, one item expected to be considered is a document, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love — A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” which the USCCB has been developing for several years. From the proposed text:
“Every racist act — every such comment, every joke, every disparaging look as a reaction to the color of skin, ethnicity or place of origin — is a failure to acknowledge another person as a brother or sister, created in the image of God. … Racial profiling frequently targets Hispanics for selective immigration enforcement practices, and African-Americans for suspected criminal activity. … There is also the growing fear and harassment of persons from majority Muslim countries. Extreme nationalist ideologies are feeding the American public discourse with xenophobic rhetoric that instigates fear against foreigners, immigrants and refugees.”
The USCCB has its own sensitivities in this area, including how its proposed investigation of McCarrick relates to a parallel probe by the Vatican. In both cases, the question is how someone known in clerical circles for harassing seminarians when he headed two New Jersey dioceses ever got to be a cardinal.
In September, USCCB’s president, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, apparently asked Pope Francis for an “apostolic visitation” — a high-level Church investigation backed by papal authority to determine what happened. But Francis seemingly declined the idea, and the USCCB is now heading its own probe into the four U.S. sees where McCarrick served: New York, Metuchen, Newark and Washington.
Some proponents of an investigation had urged that it be independent and lay-led, but the USCCB administrative committee said only that it would “rely upon” lay experts in law enforcement and social services. Plans for the probe will be discussed at the bishops’ Baltimore assembly. Meanwhile the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had authorized a search of Vatican files on McCarrick, noting that “from the examination of the facts and of the circumstances, it may emerge that choices were taken that would not be consonant with a contemporary approach.”
As for sanctioning bishops, the USCCB administrative committee said it had instructed the bishops’ canon law committee to draw up “proposals for policies addressing restrictions on bishops who were removed or resigned because of allegations of sexual abuse of minors or sexual harassment of or misconduct with adults, including seminarians and priests.”
The committee also mandated a system for telephone- and internet-based reporting of sexual misconduct by bishops, and said it had begun the process of writing a code of conduct covering not only sexual misconduct by a bishop but “negligence in the exercise of his office related to such cases.”
One obvious difficulty bishops face when it comes to sanctioning other bishops is that they lack authority to remove an erring bishop from office. Only the pope can do that.
In Baltimore, many will be listening to what Cardinal DiNardo and Archbishop Pierre have to say about any or all of these matters in their prepared remarks. There will also be much interest in whether deliberations take place in public or whether particularly sensitive matters will be discussed in executive session with only bishops present.
Russell Shaw is an Our Sunday Visitor contributing editor.