As the U.S. bishops gathered for their general assembly in Baltimore on Nov. 12-14, much…
Misconduct reports raise stakes at Baltimore bishops’ meeting
New stories detailing what appears to be failed leadership and misconduct of several U.S. bishops have emerged in the media in recent days, just in time to cast a deepening pall over next week’s highly anticipated plenary meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and raise more questions about how the bishops can be expected to lead the Church through its current crisis.
The stories detail many issues of which the Church unfortunately has become all too familiar, such as alleged cover-ups on the part of bishops related to sexual misconduct. But new dimensions of the current ecclesial crisis also have materialized, including sexual abuse of vulnerable adults and unprecedented financial misconduct — two topics Church leadership has been remiss in addressing, as it has the sexual abuse of minors.
This year’s June plenary in Baltimore takes the place of the bishops’ long-scheduled weeklong retreat in Santa Barbara, and it comes after nearly a year of waiting for answers to questions related to holding bishops accountable for abuse or its cover-up, all of which are a response to the scandal of the laicized former cardinal and notorious sexual predator Theodore E. McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, D.C.
Decisions expected to be made at last November’s plenary meeting were delayed in anticipation of the Holy See’s February abuse summit for presidents of episcopal conferences worldwide. While that meeting focused almost exclusively on clergy sexual misconduct against minors, it did result in a new law promulgated by Pope Francis regarding reporting, investigating and punishing religious and clerics — especially bishops — who commit or cover up sexual abuse against minors and vulnerable adults. The Baltimore meeting is expected to provide a plan of implementing the pope’s legal changes and establish a bishops’ code of conduct. But they will need to ensure that transparency and accountability remain at the forefront, while also weighing repeated calls for the involvement of laity.
What is certain, too, is that the bishops cannot ignore these newest allegations even as they attempt to make progress on the older ones. Catholics across the country are disillusioned, angry and losing hope that Church leaders can deliver on cleaning up what seems to many to be an ecclesial Chernobyl. While many have called for independent lay review boards to handle such allegations — a direction in which the bishops seemed to be heading last fall — the pope’s legal revisions call for a more internal investigation, assigning the task to the metropolitan archbishop, who can then assign others to assist him.
While many have questioned if bishops are able to govern and investigate themselves, the prevailing arguments in favor of the so-called metropolitan model claim it is the only approach in accord with Church law and theology. But the first implementation of this approach — the investigation related to the former bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, Bishop Michael J. Bransfield — already has highlighted its weaknesses.
In addition to credible allegations that Bishop Bransfield sexually harassed young priests and seminarians, the Washington Post has reported massive financial impropriety on his part. Millions of dollars had been misappropriated under his watch with little to no challenge due to a “culture of fear and retaliation.” Much of the misappropriated money was spent on the bishop’s own extravagant lifestyle. But it also has come to light that he frequently bestowed substantial monetary gifts to various papal nuncios, archbishops and cardinals — including Bishop Bransfield’s own metropolitan archbishop, William E. Lori of Baltimore.
In light of this, it remains to be seen how the bishops will articulate a defense of the metropolitan model to the people whose trust they must regain. Many will want to know how they can retain any confidence in this model, given what appears to be, at the very least, an imprudent exchange of rather sizable amounts of money between members of the hierarchy.
Moreover, as part of the investigation, Archbishop Lori chose to withhold the names of those, including himself, who received these large financial gifts from Bishop Bransfield. Although Archbishop Lori subsequently said he would handle things differently if he had the opportunity, it is unclear what is stopping him from releasing a complete list or confirming the reporting of the Post. Still more, where does that money lead? Why was it given? And why are such sizable amounts of money given and received in such a seemingly routine manner?
These revelations come at a time when many diocesan appeals are projecting sizable losses in the wake of the 2018-19 abuse crisis. Any resolution of such massive financial corruption has to include total transparency, but so far little has been offered. While there are theological foundations regarding who is responsible for spending in a diocese — namely, the bishop, as the one who governs — what prohibits a bishop from rendering a detailed account of expenses and income to his flock? Such transparency is needed to assure people that their bishops are not living in a way like Bishop Bransfield.
The 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report released last August offered a deeply disturbing expose on episcopal cover-ups and the mishandling of cases of sexual abuse by clergy. Because of this and the revelations of other known and unpunished abusers, such as McCarrick, many want to know what will happen to bishops who failed to protect their flock against such malfeasance. In this context, USCCB president Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo has come under scrutiny for how he handled of a case of clergy sex abuse with a vulnerable adult.
In a report from the Associated Press, Cardinal DiNardo allegedly promised a victim and her husband that the offending priest in question, the former vicar general of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, would not be returned to any active ministry where he had contact with women. The couple discovered, however, that the abuser had taken up a pastorate in the east Texas Diocese of Beaumont, a diocese under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Galveston-Houston. The archdiocese said the priest was restored to full, active ministry without restriction at the recommendation of professional staff at a treatment center where the priest had spent eight months following the revelation of his sexual misconduct. The Beaumont diocese has now temporarily removed the priest from active ministry, only citing that he came as a retired priest of Galveston-Houston “in good standing.” This begs the questions: What are, or should be, best practices regarding information sharing from one diocese to another? And why is the sexual abuse of vulnerable adults handled with such subjectivity?
Given these revelations, too, questions surround Cardinal DiNardo’s ability, as conference president, to effectively lead the bishops through this current crisis.
Culture of clerics
Fundamentally, given all that we have learned in the last few weeks — in addition to all that has emerged in the last year — how long must it be until we acknowledge something profoundly deficient in the culture of clerics? It has become clear that McCarrick rose to notable and prominent positions of power despite widespread knowledge among his peers of, at the least, his sexual deviance with vulnerable adults. More recently, it was reported that Cardinal DiNardo stated that a sufficient punishment for his abusive former vicar general was that he no longer had “an upward mobility.” And we have learned that Bishop Bransfield’s vicar general did not report what he knew about his bishop’s sexual and financial misconduct because he feared sharing such information would be, for him, “career ending.”
The main task before the bishops, then, is to acknowledge, demand and pave the way for much-needed reforms among the clergy and their own ranks. What can be done to keep those in leadership more focused on selfless service to God’s people instead of a career with perks, power and privilege?
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic and a graduate of The Catholic University of America. He writes from Indiana.