What Happened at the U.S. Bishop’s Meeting?

Vatican prevents votes on responses to sexual abuse crisis

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered in Baltimore, Maryland for their annual Fall General Assembly from November 12 to 14. After a tumultuous season of revelations and allegations of sexual abuse and homosexual activity amongst the clergy, which many have termed the Church’s “summer of shame,” there were high hopes for the General Assembly to signal a passionate and effective response to this crisis by the U.S. Bishops.

It was announced on October 30th that the General Assembly would discuss and vote on four action-items related to the abuse crisis and approved for the agenda by the Administrative Committee of the USCCB in September. These four items included: creating a third-party hotline for reports of sexual abuse and harassment by bishops, addressing restrictions on bishops who have resigned or been removed due to sexual misconduct, creating a new Code of Conduct for bishops who engage in sexual misconduct or mishandle abuse situations, and encouraging a full lay-lead investigation into the McCarrick situation.

While one could certainly imagine more comprehensive reforms, such as detailed reviews of diocesan archives, financial audits, and the implementation of strict zero-tolerance policies, these action items nonetheless demonstrated a sincere effort on the part of the bishops’ conference to tend to the needs of their flock and address the fallout of prior decisions. The General Meeting would at the very least be a step in the right direction, and an opportunity for the bishops to prove themselves and regain some of the laity’s trust after responses from several American bishops and the Vatican had failed to demonstrate serious concern for the situation.

Such was the case, that is, until President of the USCCB Cardinal Daniel DiNardo announced, before the conference session had even been called to order, that he had received instructions from the Vatican the previous night stating they were not to vote on either a Code of Conduct for bishops or an investigative commission.

Cardinal DiNardo, who appeared shocked himself, shared that the Holy See directed that votes on these measures be delayed until after the February 2019 meeting called by Pope Francis, which will be attended by all of the heads of national bishops conferences and is intended to address the sex-abuse crisis for the global Church. The cardinal expressed that he was disappointed and found the instruction to be “quizzical.”

While Cardinal DiNardo was still speaking, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago intervened in defense of the Holy Father and proposed taking non-binding votes on the proposed measures so that Cardinal DiNardo might bring a consensus opinion with him to Rome in February. He also suggested moving the USCCB’s planned June 2019 meeting to March, so that the bishops can immediately address whatever is decided at the February gathering.

The instruction came from the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, which is headed by prefect Cardinal Marc Ouellet. In a comment to the National Catholic Register, Cardinal Ouellet offered his “reassurance that the Congregation [for Bishops] is working for the best evaluation and accompaniment of the American episcopate’s questions.”

The Bishops ultimately voted down 83-137 a resolution to “encourage the Holy Father to release all the documentation that can be released consistent with canon and civil law regarding the misconduct of Archbishop McCarrick.”

The General Assembly concluded with Cardinal DiNardo’s assurance that “We leave this place committed to taking the strongest possible actions at the earliest possible moment.” Nonetheless, the concrete action desired by the American Church was not to be had.

This reality is unfortunate for victims of abuse, for faithful U.S. Catholics desiring reform, and for the Church’s evangelical relationship with the secular world. It raises some questions about the intentions of the Vatican in stopping definitive votes on practical reform measures for the U.S. Church. It places pressure on the international gathering in February, which needs to answer these questions and demonstrate the Vatican’s dedication to investigating and addressing all cases of clergy misconduct.

Will the February meeting expand or limit the steps that can be taken by the American episcopate to investigate and make public information about sex abuse and homosexual activity amongst the clergy? Will it show concern for victims and transparency in regards to past crimes? Or will it display a clerical attitude more concerned with being “open” to different visions of sexuality so as to inadvertently deflect the heinous sexual crimes of priests and bishops in the last century?

The events of November 12-14 are perhaps most salient because of the history of the players involved. All of this comes on the heels of the release of three letters by Archbishop Vigano, former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. The letters made accusations of a cover-up of sexual abuse by the Vatican in reference to the McCarrick situation and of a homosexual subculture amongst Vatican clergy, even calling for the resignation of Pope Francis.

Cardinal Cupich is one of two U.S. cardinals whose promotion Archbishop Vigano attributed directly to Cardinal McCarrick. On August 28, 2018, in an interview with NBC 5, Cardinal Cupich said in response to Archbishop Vigano’s letter that “The Pope has a bigger agenda. He’s got to get on with other things, of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the church. We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.”

Cardinal Cupich later apologized for his remarks, but their negative effect on the laity’s understanding of his commitment to reform remains, as well as confusion as to where his priorities lie.

Archbishop Vigano also accused Cardinal Ouellet of knowing about Pope Benedict XVI’s sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick and urging him to tell the truth about the situation. Cardinal Ouellet himself released a letter in response to Vigano, in which he denied that Pope Benedict XVI had imposed sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick, but admitted that the cardinal “had been strongly advised not to travel and not to appear in public.”

Putting all of these accusations aside, the Vatican’s recent instruction to the USCCB raises the broader question of how “synodality” is really to function in the Catholic Church. Ethics and Public Policy Senior Distinguished Fellow George Weigel has pointed out that such an autocratic decision in reference to a pastoral matter best handled by those locally involved does not seem to invoke the “collegiality” which is supposed to be characteristic of Pope Francis papacy. Catholic University of America Theology Professor C. C. Pecknold and journalist Ross Douthat have likewise highlighted how synodality was used as a justification for the German bishop’s liberal interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, which is a matter of doctrine affecting the universal Church, whereas there is apparently no room for synodality in this local, pastoral matter affecting the American Church.

That being said, it has been mentioned by some that perhaps the Vatican’s instructions were a blessing in disguise, as the measures proposed by the USCCB had not been thoroughly examined and perhaps had some canonical issues. Some have also suggested that Pope Francis desires greater unity in the Church on this matter.

It remains to be seen what will happen in February. It was announced on November 23 that Cardinal Cupich would be on a four-person organizing committee for the February summit at the Vatican to address the global abuse crisis, whereas Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, was not selected. The stakes are high for the Church this time around, but we must have faith in Jesus’ words to St. Peter in the Gospel of St. Matthew, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Noelle Johnson is a junior studying theology and physics. You can contact her at njohns16@nd.edu.

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