In the most anticipated and arguably important meetings of the U.S. bishops since 2002, America’s shepherds gathered in Baltimore Nov. 12-14 beneath the shadow of the clergy sex-abuse crisis. In particular, the darkest of clouds surrounded disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington and his many alleged acts of sexual misconduct and impropriety with minors and seminarians.
The bishops were well aware of the levels of anger and frustration on the part of the faithful in the dioceses and archdioceses across the country. Church watchers contended that they could not leave Baltimore without concrete steps and decisive leadership to begin restoring their damaged credibility and rebuilding the trust of American Catholics.
By the end of the three days of meetings, however, many Catholics wondered if the bishops had accomplished the unlikeliest of achievements: Far from crafting even rudimentary solutions to the sex-abuse crisis and their own depleted credibility, they had managed to make their situation worse — courtesy primarily of a peremptory intervention from Rome.
Just minutes into the opening meeting the morning of Nov. 12, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced to the stunned bishops that the plans to proceed with a program of reform measures were effectively put on hold.
Literally the night before, Cardinal DiNardo had been informed that the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops had requested that no votes be taken on several of the most key measures, such as the “Standards of Episcopal Conduct” and the creation of a “Special Commission for Review of Complaints Against Bishops for Violations of the Standards of Episcopal Conduct.”
The votes should not be taken, it was said, until after the planned meeting in Rome in February 2019 that will bring together the presidents of all of the world’s bishops’ conferences — Cardinal DiNardo included — to discuss the sex-abuse crisis. The cardinal and many other bishops expressed great disappointment with the decision by the Holy See to stall the reform process. As the conference continued, the shocking news was only the beginning.
What started with the dashed hopes of many Catholics and many of the bishops themselves on the first day of the fall assembly ended on the third day with the rejection of a simple resolution encouraging the Holy See to release all pertinent documents in the McCarrick scandal.
It was to be a symbolic statement that would help the bishops reaffirm their commitment to fighting abuse and show that they could at the very least conclude their gathering with one voice on perhaps the most pressing crisis in the history of Catholicism in the United States.
The first version of the resolution, as proposed by Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan, declared, “Be it resolved that the bishops of the USCCB 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.”
As with the plans for “Standards of Episcopal Conduct” and the review commission, that, too, died, snuffed out under the weight of episcopal nitpicking — the bishops could not agree even on the use of the word “soon” — and a refusal to approve anything that might be perceived as a criticism of Pope Francis.
Opposition to the resolution was kicked off by Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, who argued that the Holy See had already announced Oct. 6 that an investigation of Archbishop McCarrick was underway in its archives and that such a resolution was thus redundant. He was joined by other prelates, including Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago. As it was, the resolution was defeated 137-83, with three abstentions.
To his credit, Cardinal DiNardo tried valiantly to sound a positive note in his final address for the meeting.
“We leave this place committed to taking the strongest possible actions at the earliest possible moment,” he said. “We will do so in communion with the universal Church. Moving forward in concert with the Church around the world will make the Church in the United States stronger and will make the global Church stronger.”
Cardinal DiNardo rightly shifted focus to the Holy See and the next event that will try to solve the crisis facing the Church: the gathering in Rome in February.
That assembly now assumes immense significance, as ordinary Catholics, and especially the victims of abuse who have waited for clear actions since the summer and the explosion of the McCarrick scandal, are now asked to wait until next year for any clarity.
It is likely, too, that, on the level of the U.S. Church, little will be implemented until the U.S. bishops gather again for official business next June.
Pope Francis took steps he apparently deemed necessary to focus attention on the special meeting in February. Such is his right and even obligation, but the price of it in Baltimore for the U.S. bishops was a steep one.
What can Catholics do going forward?
The bishops now return home to face their flocks. They must tell them the truth. They were prevented from starting down the road of new reforms by the Holy See, which believes that the solution must begin in Rome and must be seen as a universal process.
They must also tell the faithful that although the process will take longer, that will not prevent them from providing renewed, decisive and prayer-filled leadership in their own dioceses or archdioceses. That includes enforcing the laws and norms of the Church in fighting and preventing the sexual abuse of minors, the abuse of power, sexual misconduct and all violations and sins against chastity and celibacy.
Catholics can also support and encourage their own bishops in their leadership and exhort them to be holy shepherds. As we have seen in the news, any bishop who does not show any initiative will have nowhere to hide, as the media and, more importantly, the faithful are watching closely.
In the wake of a bishops’ meeting that was equally exasperating and spiritually disheartening, Catholics would do well to remember that reform of our institutions cannot be accomplished without authentic spiritual reform.
Every Catholic has a role to play. As Cardinal DiNardo said at the end of the meeting, “Our hope for true and deep reform ultimately lies in more than excellent systems, as essential as these are. It requires holiness: the deeply held conviction of the truths of the Gospel and the eager readiness to be transformed by those truths in all aspects of life.”