BALTIMORE — The bishops of the United States resumed their open-floor discussion on the recent sex-abuse scandals facing the Church in America Wednesday morning. In addition to debating the best means of institutionally responding to the crisis, the specific case of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick was raised by several speakers.
Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, told the conference Nov. 14 that the allegations against McCarrick, and the scandal of his rise and fall, were not just affecting longtime Catholics. Many people in the process of entering the Church found themselves having the example of McCarrick thrown at them by friends and family as evidence that they were entering an institution in crisis.
Bishop Stika said McCarrick, and the letters of former nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, were serving as “ammunition” to discourage people from entering the Church and that many Catholics felt that bishops were only responding to the sex-abuse crisis when they were “forced to” by the media.
Several bishops spoke in favor of the USCCB acting as a body to speak out about McCarrick.
Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, told the conference hall that “we end where we begin.”
“So much of the outrage we experience — and I think it’s a rightful outrage — is prompted by the injustice that our people have experienced at the hands of predators, at the treatment of our seminarians and our priests who were entrusted to the care of former Cardinal McCarrick, a trust that was not only violated, but was ignored by others who were responsible for paying attention.”
Bishop Olson observed that while Pope Francis had accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals and sent him to a life of prayer and penance pending a canonical process, the USCCB had yet to respond as a body to the scandal caused by one of their own.
“He is an emeritus [bishop of a U.S. diocese], and as such, he is supposed to be a welcome guest here. He is not welcome, and we should say it,” Bishop Olson said. He also questioned if the bishops’ reliance on structural and procedural reform was overshadowing their need to act with moral authority.
“We have said the Holy See should let us get some new norms, get a process together. Do we use this process as a means of avoiding our pastoral responsibilities?” he asked, suggesting that the conference needed to condemn not just McCarrick’s alleged behavior, but also Archbishop Vigano’s call for the resignation of the Pope, which he called an attack on the Petrine office.
Bishop Liam Cary of Baker, Oregon, also insisted that the conference needed to respond to the McCarrick scandal as a body, saying McCarrick had “grievously offended” not just his victims, but all Catholics, priests and bishops.
By abusing seminarians “successively, over decades,” Bishop Cary said McCarrick had left a “shameful residue” on all the bishops, and that while other institutions had revoked honors previously bestowed on the former cardinal, the USCCB had taken no action.
Bishop Cary cited the example of bodies like the U.S. Senate, which could pass resolutions to censure its members as one way they could respond, but insisted that some kind of action was urgently needed.
“What are people to make of our silence?” he asked. “How do we lead our brother to the mercy of God if we leave unspoken the demands of his justice?”
Bishop Cary echoed Bishop Olson’s concern that McCarrick was still technically qualified as a welcome participant at the conference.
“If McCarrick were to come to this microphone, would he be allowed to speak?” Bishop Cary asked, noting that there was no open microphone for his victims.
In addition to the specific problem of Archbishop McCarrick, the bishops also discussed how they could proceed more generally in light of the Holy See’s intervention to prevent them from voting to adopt the proposed “Standards for Episcopal Conduct” or to create an independent special commission to investigate allegations against bishops.
Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange, California, summed up the dilemma facing the conference.
“We cannot just sit back and do nothing,” he told the bishops. If a deliberative vote was not possible, he said, the bishops needed to at least take “some sort of consultative vote” to show that the American bishops were firmly resolved among themselves.
Bishop Robert Christian, auxiliary bishop of San Francisco, expressed the frustrations of many bishops at the inability of the conference to act.
He pointed out that as several scandals broke over the summer, “the leadership of this conference was blocked from either working in partnership with the Holy See or leaving it to us in the dioceses.”
Bishop Christian said that he was concerned by the Holy See’s intervention. He observed that it could take months for the Vatican to produce a final resolution after the February meeting of the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences in Rome. This could mean, he said, that the U.S. bishops could find it still “impossible” to act in March, or even June, of next year.
“It is all the more important to vote today as if we were voting on a policy,” he said, so that both the faithful and the Holy See could see the clear mind of the bishops.
Despite the support of many in the conference hall for the original proposal for an independent commission to receive and investigate allegations against bishops, a few bishops have suggested they would prefer to see a different system altogether.
Bishop Gregory Hartmayer of Savannah, Georgia, proposed that Rome should instead be asked to consider amending canon law to give metropolitan archbishops an expanded role and authority for dealing with allegations against bishops in their province. His proposal was echoed by Bishop Robert Coerver of Lubbock, Texas.
Bishop Hartmayer noted that it might be better for accusations against a bishop to be considered by “a jury of their peers,” since, he said, “no one understands a bishop so much as another bishop.”
He also said that bishops owed each other the “courtesy” of listening “to one of our brothers who has misbehaved in some way.”
While the majority of the comments from the floor were concerned with what direct action the conference could take, others were more reflective.
Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond, Virginia, gave a long and clearly personal reflection on the pain experienced by priests and laity alike in his former diocese, Washington.
Bishop Knestout said that he looked upon the current scandals on a continuum of previous crises, stretching back 50 years to the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, saying that the rejection by many clergy of that document, and the Church’s teaching on the dignity of human life and sexuality, had caused “one long crisis of leadership and teaching” in the Church.
Despite the clear and forceful calls by several bishops for some clear statement on the case of Archbishop McCarrick, when the bishops resumed their seats after breaking for lunch, they voted down a resolution to “encourage” the Holy See to release whatever documents it could on McCarrick.
As they debated the minutiae of the resolution’s wording, the bishops found they could not even agree on the inclusion of the word “soon.”
After the defeat of the proposal, one bishop remarked to CNA that “we cannot seem to speak clearly, even when we want to agree.”
Ed Condon is the Washington editor for Catholic News Agency.