Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
BALTIMORE — “If the laity doesn’t do anything, this is game over.”
Regina Schmiedicke stood on the concrete pier in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, watching her two young daughters run around, bundled in their coats. She and her husband Andrew brought their family up from Virginia to the “Silence Stops Now” rally held at the harbor’s MECU Pavilion — a venue used to vast crowds gathering for summer music festivals.
A gentle breeze rippled over the harbor’s silt-brown waters, carrying a chill that made the pier feel colder than the 40-degree weather. Schmiedicke said they had only one reason to be there.
“Because we’re Catholic,” she said, and they were not leaving it up to the media to hold the bishops accountable.
A crowd had gathered under the pavilion’s great white tent that stretched out against the steel gray sky for the 1:30-4:30 p.m. at the rally. Immediately next door, connected by a wooden plank footbridge, stood the Baltimore Marriott hotel, where the U.S. Catholic bishops were debating what course of action they would take about clergy sexual abuse and holding bishops accountable for their role.
For the laity who came to Baltimore, the “Stop the Silence” event was an opportunity to assert their responsibility as individual Catholics to demand change in the Church, and leadership from the bishops.
The rally had been organized, chiefly by Church Militant in concert with other groups, in the wake of this summer’s revelations about the sexual misconduct of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, and the widespread historical clergy sexual abuse detailed by the Pennsylvania grand jury report.
Schmiedicke told the Register that she wanted the bishops to see her children — particularly her teenagers whose faith is challenged by looking at the bishops’ role in the crisis — and realize “something is very wrong with the Church.”
The U.S. bishops had been set to vote on these issues — with a code of conduct for bishops and an independent lay investigative committee empowered to investigate — until an eleventh-hour message from the Holy See told them not to hold any votes. Instead, they were told to wait until a February meeting at the Vatican with Pope and presidents of bishops’ conferences worldwide.
Tell the Truth
At the rally itself, the common thread among the speakers was the need for the Church to tell the truth — and the grave sense the faithful had been denied the truth, and suffered the consequences. And furthermore, that the Vatican was heavily involved.
“Jesus’ law is much higher than pontifical secrets,” said James Grein, a man who was the first baby Archbishop McCarrick baptized and who has alleged he was abused by the archbishop starting as a boy and into manhood. Grein revealed his full name for the first time since coming forward simply as “James” to The New York Times.
He referred to the recent Boston Globe-Philadelphia Inquirer investigation that reported nearly one out of three of the U.S. bishops had been negligent in handling abuse. He said bishops needed to go ahead and do the right thing.
“It is not Francis’ Church — it is Jesus Christ’s Church.”
The faithful out in the cold grasped yellow signs on black posters, bearing messages such as “Shepherds, Not Wolves,” “#CatholicMeToo,” and “No Truth, No Cash.” Many shared the sense that the abuse of doctrine, abuse of liturgy, and abuse of seminarians and minors, were all somehow connected.
Three times, the gathering broke into a roaring chant at the mention of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s name as a truth-teller: “Vigano, Vigano, Vigano, Vigano!”
Some participants told the Register of their deep frustration with the bishops for having brought the Church to this point, while expressing their support for them to do the right thing, and demanding the Church recommit to holiness.
Siobhan O’Connor, the 37-year-old Catholic whistleblower in the Diocese of Buffalo’s chancery, said she felt the pain and sadness that the laity were on one side of that bridge, and the bishops were on the other.
“I did feel the divide between us and them,” she said. But O’Connor said she felt the people’s presence at the U.S. bishops’ assembly was a sign of hope.
“We’re really here to support our bishops,” she said.
Cirita Watson from Indiana, came forward to O’Connor and told her that she was an inspiration to her girls. Watson then told the Register that she flew into Baltimore, because “we believe in the Catholic Church.”
“It gave me an opportunity to play my part — to stand and be a voice for others,” she said.
Ann Kerrigan came with her 16-year-old daughter, Ann Margaret from Warrenton, Virginia. Kerrigan said the Pope’s prohibition on the USCCB voting offended her, and made her think the Vatican truly felt that with enough time this storm would just blow over.
Kerrigan said, “Today was a show of unity. I want the world to know we’re here to say, “Stop the silence.”
Three sisters from Texas — Kathy Imondi, Teresa Ackerman and Judy Murray — told the Register that they spent their own money to come, because they wanted the bishops to know they were serious. They wanted laypeople investigating bishops, and for bishops to tell the truth, or “the money is going to be drying up.”
Imondi said the message was pure and simple: “Do what you need to do, or get out.”
A Bishop Speaks
After the event’s conclusion, meeting, some opted to carry the protest outside the hotel lobby. A Baltimore police car was on hand, but a security person told the Register there was no incident.
A few bishops walked outside the hotel lobby.
“Please shepherds, come talk to us, your excellency, please!” said one woman. A member of a bishop’s entourage pulled out his phone and raised it high, making it very clear he was video-recording them.
Chad, a Baltimore resident who came from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told the Register that he used to defend the bishops, thinking they dealt with the “few rotten apples in the priesthood” after the Dallas Charter in 2002. Until he read the Pennsylvania grand jury report, and saw how the bishops covered up the crimes a priest perpetrated against his grade school mates.
“They [the bishops] didn’t live up to their word,” Chad said, noting that justice was never done. And the priest-perpetrator: “He’s still alive — never been charged.”
One bishop, however, did come out of the lobby: Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee. Surrounded by a crowd of 30 protesters, he answered questions, and heard people vent their pain and frustration.
“I believe Satan is behind all of this,” he said. Bishop Stika said Christ gives the Eucharist to feed the faith of his people — and to cut people off from the Eucharist and kill their faith, he is attacking the priesthood.
One person asked about active homosexuality, and Bishop Stika said to try to boil it down to one problem would do a disservice to the truth: Many abusers were heterosexual, some of them had been abused, and there were failures of moral formation and catechesis for more than 70 years.
Another person chimed in, “What do you think about Vigano?”
“I liked him!” the bishop said, saying his first letter was a great service to the Church.
Bishop Stika heard the frustration that the bishops did not join the faithful. The bishop said he wanted them to know they were heard, he wanted this dialogue, and he would take those criticisms back to his brother bishops.
Signaling he had to go to dinner, the bishop and lay faithful together offered up the Our Father, and he gave his blessing.
He stayed behind another 10 minutes, listening and answering questions as the faithful departed.
The next day, the bishops voted on a resolution stating: “Regarding the ongoing investigation of the Holy See into the case of Archbishop McCarrick, be it resolved that the bishops of the USCCB encourage the Holy See to release soon all documentation that can be released consistent with canon and civil law regarding the allegations of misconduct against Archbishop McCarrick.”
It failed in a clicker vote of 83-137.
Outside the hotel, holding their signs, the faithful prayed the Rosary for the bishops, and then headed to church to go to Mass.