An immense amount of suspense surrounded the start of the second day of the Fall Meeting of the USCCB in Baltimore.

The U.S. Bishops arrived Monday with the expectation of debating and voting on several planned pillars in confronting the clergy sexual abuse crisis, in particular the especially acute problem of bishops accused of covering up abuse or being guilty themselves of sexual abuse, misconduct and impropriety, as well as the abuse of power.

What greeted them was the announcement from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the bishops’ conference that the Holy See had requested that no votes be taken on the proposals for reform, at least until the February gathering in the Vatican of the heads of the world’s episcopal conferences on the subject of abuse. The news left the bishops clearly stunned and rather demoralized as they headed into the planned day of prayer and reflection.

Day Two marked a significant shift in direction as a consensus had formed that while votes on the programmatic reforms were not feasible at the behest of the Holy See — essentially Pope Francis — there is still much that can be done and has to be done in the days that they are together. Once that sense of resolve, that élan, had been recaptured, the bishops seemed willing to push ahead with vigorous discussions to find a path forward for them to confront the crisis while remaining in obedience to the demands of the Congregation for Bishops.

They will look at every issue confronting them and will learn as much as possible about solving them to hand off to Cardinal DiNardo all of the knowledge and tools possible for his participation in the February meeting.

The clarion declaration was given by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, who early on said that this is not a rebellion or act of disobedience against Pope Francis. Rather, the bishops are not “branch managers” for the Vatican nor “vicars of the Roman Pontiff.”

The USCCB, he said, must “take care of our sheep.”

 

The Shadow of Theodore McCarrick

The sharpness of the change in tone and the robustness of the discussions became manifest almost immediately when Cardinal DiNardo announced that there would be a voice vote to add an item to the agenda.

The typically mild procedural vote was suddenly fraught with significance when the cardinal declared that the proposed addition was to discuss sending a formal request to the Holy See that all evidence related to the case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick be released.

As chess games go, it was a provocative opening gambit that was soon followed by repeated returns to the McCarrick scandal as the dark heart of the current crisis.

Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, a noted theologian, emphasized that the current problems began with former Cardinal McCarrick. People, he added, were pushing for the bishops to get to the bottom of the story.

What, for example, is the status of the Holy See’s documentary review of its own files? He then went further by asking how it might be possible to exert “respectful pressure” for a thorough investigation.

Bishop Barron was not alone. Two important boards, the 35-member National Advisory Council (a consultative body of laity, priests, religious and bishops) that helps the bishops prepare for their meetings and the lay-based National Review Board that assists the bishops in dealing with the sex abuse crisis, gave their reports. Both groups mentioned McCarrick specifically and both pushed for full investigations.

The chairman of the Advisory Council, Father David Whitestone, called especially for a comprehensive and independent investigation into the McCarrick scandal, including details of the settlements and the names of those who might have been aware of possible sanctions on Archbishop McCarrick. The latter issue of sanctions, of course, became a key element in the testimony of the former apostolic nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Viganó.

“We struggled to understand the nature of this crisis,” Whitestone told the bishops. “The grand jury report opened deep wounds. … We must recommit to the ongoing care of all victims and their healing."

The boards also urged action on several other issues, including implementation of the proposed code of conduct for bishops, reaffirming that “more should be expected of our bishops, not less.”

In addition, the NAC called for an independent lay commission to investigate allegations of misconduct on the part of bishops and an audit of all U.S. seminaries to investigate so-called “predatory homosexual behavior.”

The chairman of the National Review Board, Francesco Cesareo, not only spoke in support of the USCCB’s call for a full investigation into the Archbishop McCarrick scandal but recommended that archdioceses of Newark, Washington and New York all cooperate with any investigations.

The message was unmistakable. While the perception is widespread that the Vatican does not see it as a major priority, the majority of bishops want to see progress in the investigation into the McCarrick affair. And they are joined by the boards that assist the bishops’ conference in its own work. That is a significant body of Catholics that cannot be ignored forever.

 

Policing the Bishops

The McCarrick scandal had the further effect of compelling the bishops to focus on the key question of who has oversight in the investigations of possible misconduct by the bishops themselves.

One of the major proposals that the bishops had initially hoped to approve related to a third party mechanism for reporting misconduct by bishops, the implementation of “standards of accountability for bishops” and a vademecum (protocol) for sitting bishops to deal with other bishops who have been removed for sexual abuse, negligence or some kind of misconduct.

Reporting misconduct by bishops is complicated for many Catholics is the simple task of lodging a formal complaint against a bishop.

In his presentation on the proposed plan, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles joked that people think they need to contact the pope to have any hope of reporting abuse or inappropriate behavior, but they can’t exactly get him on the line. That means reporting needs to be far more effective and that might mean a system of outside reporting that encompasses the accusations of the sexual abuse of minors, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct with adults.

Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit then explained the possibility of a commission to handle the cases against bishops. The proposal — one of the two to be subject to the Holy See’s call for a nonvote — encompassed a rough cost of $500,000 annually, paid for by contributions from participating dioceses and not by the USCCB. It would also be a nonprofit corporation with a commission of nine members, of six laypeople and three clerics.

Laypeople would serve as the chairman and vice chairman, along with a survivor of sexual abuse and various experts in canon and civil law and psychology. The commission would receive complaints against the bishops and report them to civil authorities if they involve sexual abuse of minors. At the end of investigations, they would provide a report to the nuncio.

While hazy in its details, the proposal still drew hard comments from some bishops who worried about its canonical and theological implications and whether the cost estimates for investigations were remotely accurate. One thing that all of the bishops seemed to agree about was that action was needed, that lay people need to be a core element in the longterm success of any plans and that care for the victims must be paramount. Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, warned that all considerations should be anchored in care for victims. “We can't leave here,” he said, “without taking appropriate action, with respect always to the Holy See.”

Similarly, many bishops urged their brothers to remember the spiritual dimension in the crisis.

Bishop emeritus Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo, Texas, said, “We haven't given enough consideration to our call to holiness...at the root of all of this is a deep spiritual crisis.”

 

Next Moves

After Monday morning’s announcement, the bishops might have decided to have simplified deliberations with scaled down hopes for the meeting. Instead, they chose to seize the initiative and advance their pieces in a chess game with the Holy See. They may not be able to vote on their program, but they knew they would have to send any serious proposals to Rome for approval anyway.

What they decided to do in the end is refocus attention on where it needs to be: the deep spiritual, moral and ecclesiastical emergency caused in large measure by the McCarrick scandal and the host of related problems.

The bishops grasped that they had to restore their credibility and put forward concrete plans for the future. The forthright debate under the limited circumstances imposed from afar began the arduous process of reestablishing public credibility. Wednesday will continue that process with further interventions by the bishops and perhaps some affirmative statements for the future.

Certainly, Cardinal DiNardo will have much to take with him to Rome in February.

“Our discussion today,” he said Tuesday, “is meant to improve the process with your input." He added that further consultation with the Holy See will be forthcoming.

By the end of the fall meeting today, the bishops might be able to position themselves in a stronger position going forward. They know that Pope Francis will always have the right and the authority to checkmate any decisions they make, as he did Monday. Come Thursday, it will be up to Pope Francis to make the next move.