WASHINGTON — Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington collaborated extensively on a recently proposed policy for handling abuse allegations against bishops, CNA has learned.
Cardinal Cupich submitted the plan last Tuesday to leaders of the U.S. bishops’ conference, proffering it as an alternative to a proposal that had been devised by conference officials and staffers.
The conference’s proposed plan would have established an independent lay-led commission to investigate allegations against bishops. The Cupich-Wuerl plan would instead send allegations against bishops to be investigated by their metropolitan archbishops, along with archdiocesan review boards. Metropolitans themselves would be investigated by their senior suffragan bishops.
Sources in Rome and Washington told CNA that Cardinals Wuerl and Cupich worked together on their alternative plan for weeks and presented it to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops before the U.S. bishops’ conference assembly in Baltimore. Cardinals Cupich and Wuerl are both members of the Congregation for Bishops.
The Cupich-Wuerl plan was submitted to the U.S. bishops even after a Vatican directive was issued last Monday barring U.S. bishops from voting on any abuse-related measures. The Vatican suspended USCCB policymaking on sexual abuse until after a February meeting involving the heads of bishops’ conferences from around the world.
An official at the Congregation for Bishops told CNA on Thursday that the substance of the plan presented by Cardinal Cupich at the Baltimore meeting is known in the congregation as “Wuerl’s plan.” The official would not confirm whether the congregation had received an advance copy of the document.
Senior chancery officials in Washington described the plan presented Tuesday as a collaborative effort by the cardinals, telling CNA that Cardinals Wuerl and Cupich first informed the Congregation for Bishops several weeks ago about their idea for the “metropolitan model” to handle complaints against a bishop and suggested they had continued to discuss the plan with congregation officials since that time.
“It was a mutual effort,” one Archdiocese of Washington official told CNA.
The idea of amending USCCB policy so that allegations against a bishop would be handled by his metropolitan archbishop was first suggested by Cardinal Wuerl publicly in August.
While Cardinal Cupich played an active role in conference sessions last week and proposed the detailed plan for an alternative to the conference’s special commission, Cardinal Wuerl did not make any public comment on the plan, which at least some in Rome consider to be “his” and which he first suggested in public three months ago.
Sources familiar with the behind-the-scenes discussions in Baltimore told CNA that Cardinal Wuerl chose to step back from the plan’s presentation, providing advice and counsel but not seeking to take public credit. A spokesman for Cardinal Wuerl declined to comment on that decision.
Several bishops in Baltimore told CNA that Cardinal Cupich appeared to be positioning himself as an unofficial but influential policymaker in the conference. His status would be strengthened if the plan he introduced in Baltimore gained support in Rome, they said, especially if it were favored over the plan proposed by conference officials.
It is not clear to what extent Cardinal Cupich considered how the manner in which he presented his plan could be interpreted. A representative for the Archdiocese of Chicago told CNA that Cardinal Cupich was away and could not be reached for comment.
A source familiar with the drafting of the alternative proposal told CNA that Cardinal Wuerl was not involved in the way the plan was presented in Baltimore, saying that Cardinal Wuerl’s only concern was developing the best possible plan for tackling the sex-abuse crisis and not “playing games” at the conference.
Many American bishops arrived in Baltimore last week expecting to approve the proposed independent commission, along with proposed standards for episcopal conduct. Bishops were stunned to discover last Monday that they could not vote on the measures, following the last-minute instruction from the Congregation for Bishops, received last Sunday night by conference president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo.
An Archdiocese of Washington official suggested to CNA that the Congregation for Bishops’ last-minute suspension of voting at the Baltimore meeting might have been because the conference’s independent commission proposal was not sent to Rome until Oct. 30.
Cardinal DiNardo, however, told a news conference Monday that while the draft document for the independent commission had been sent to Rome at the end of October, the USCCB had been in consistent contact with Vatican officials as the texts were developed.
Cardinal DiNardo said, “When we were in Rome [in October], we consulted with all of [the Vatican dicasteries]. I mean, [that’s what] we do.”
“When I met with the Holy Father in October, the Holy Father was very positive in a general way — he had not seen everything yet — of the kind of action items we were looking to do.”
Cardinal Cupich spoke from the floor immediately after Cardinal DiNardo’s announcement of the change last Monday morning. The cardinal suggested that the bishops continue to discuss the proposed measures and take non-binding votes on them. He offered no indication at that time that he would introduce a completely different plan.
By Tuesday afternoon, the Chicago cardinal rose to question the premise of the USCCB’s proposed independent commission, asking if it was a reflection of sound ecclesiology. Cardinal Cupich suggested that the commission could be seen as a way of “outsourcing” difficult situations.
Shortly thereafter, Cardinal Cupich submitted to conference leaders a seemingly well-prepared and comprehensive “Supplement to the [USCCB] Essential Norms,” which outlined in detail the plan he had developed with Cardinal Wuerl.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said from the floor that the “metropolitan model” appeared to align closer with the Church’s hierarchical structure.
“I really do favor the use of the metropolitan and the metropolitan review board for these cases … but that would require that the Holy See give metropolitan archbishops more authority than we have,” Archbishop Chaput told the conference.
Archbishop Chaput told the bishop that the reason the USCCB executive committee opted to pursue the idea of an independent commission instead of developing a plan based around the metropolitan archbishop was because they did not think the “metropolitan model’ would have support in Rome.
“When we discussed this at the executive-committee level we, some people, thought it would be easier for us to develop this independent commission than to get the Church to change canon law,” he said.
Sources close to the USCCB told CNA that if the executive committee had known the Vatican might support the “metropolitan model,” it might have been pursued earlier, with a proposal being circulated to members by the conference leadership. A representative for the USCCB declined to comment on that possibility.
Cardinal Cupich had suggested during the meeting that either or both plans could be voted on in non-binding resolutions in order to give the Vatican a sense of the American episcopate’s desires. Ultimately, no vote was taken.
Instead, as the Baltimore meeting ended, Cardinal DiNardo agreed that Cardinal Cupich’s plan would be developed alongside the independent-commission plan by a special task force consisting of former USCCB presidents Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz and Archbishop Wilton Gregory. Cardinal DiNardo will have the option of presenting either or both possibilities when he and conference vice president Archbishop José Gomez attend the Vatican’s February meeting.
USCCB spokespersons declined several times to comment on any role Cardinals Cupich or Wuerl, members of the Congregation for Bishops, might have played in developing the congregation’s reaction to the special-commission plan.
Ed Condon is the Washington editor of Catholic News Agency.