USCCB Demonstrators: The Scene Outside the US Bishops’ Meeting in Baltimore
Several groups took to the streets in Baltimore during the U.S. Bishops' Fall meeting.
BALTIMORE, Md. — About 230 members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops came to Baltimore Nov. 15-18, along with their staff, members of the media, four Orthodox bishops, and a handful of observers, for the 2021 Fall General Assembly of the USCCB.
Also in Baltimore this week were well over a thousand people who were protesting what they see as inaction by the bishops, and a desire for increased transparency and accountability among the leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States.
CNA spoke to some of the people who traveled to Baltimore who were hoping to get their voices heard in some way or another.
Monday, Nov. 15
The first day of the general assembly, Nov. 15, was closed to the media and was an “executive session” of the bishops. But that did not stop different groups notably, Catholics for Choice and The Men’s March, from making an appearance.
In the “Bread Not Stones” march, a small group organized by Catholics for Choice processed in Baltimore with signs. They argued that one’s belief in the right to a legal abortion should not be disqualifying from the Eucharist.
The Catholic Church teaches that intentionally procuring an abortion is a mortal sin that automatically incurs an excommunication.
On the other end of the political spectrum, The Men’s March took to the streets of Baltimore for the exact opposite reason. They wished to see bishops take a stronger stance on enforcing canon law.
“The greatest social issue we face is the issue of abortion, because it takes the lives of 2,300 human beings every day in America, and 200,000 human beings every day in our world,” said Gabriel Vance, 26, to CNA. Vance founded a pro-life organization with his wife earlier this year.
“The Catholic Church,” he said, “needs to be taking a stand against that.” And that means Catholic men — bishops, priests, deacons, and laymen — can’t remain silent, he added.
Tuesday, Nov. 16
The largest of these demonstrations was the “Bishops: Enough is Enough” rally, sponsored by St. Michael’s Media on Tuesday, the second day of the assembly.
The six-hour rally, held at the MECU Pavilion adjacent to the hotel hosting the assembly, featured a slew of speakers, including “canceled priest” Father James Altman, controversial author Milo Yiannopoulos, leaders of Catholic organizations, and many others.
Speaking to CNA on Monday, Yiannopoulos said he did not think that Church leaders are afraid of Mass-going Catholics.
“And I think perhaps they ought to be, because there is a huge rupture coming" between faithful Catholics and those Catholic leaders who contradict Church teaching, he said.
“Something big is building, something big is coming.”
In 2017, Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart News and saw his book canceled after an old video of him defending sexual relations between adults and young boys resurfaced.
Yiannopoulos, who himself is a survivor of clerical sexual abuse, said that he eventually “came to realize some of the consequences it had on me, and the lack of acknowledgment, support, seriousness from everybody I went to about it thereafter. And I've come to view the subject with renewed seriousness."
Yiannopoulos said he feels he has an obligation to speak out and hold bishops accountable. “I have by no means the most horrendous, harrowing story, but if I can help to draw attention to people who do have those histories, the wreckage in their lives, in some cases, if I can help them, then I should, and I must, so I am,” he said.
Signs at the event carried such slogans as “MILLSTONES BISHOPS MILLSTONES,” “Monsters in Mitres,” and “We’re on the side of St. Michael and the angels!”
Among those CNA spoke to at the rally were Mary Ann Leimbach and Barbara Flatley, who came from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
“I need an institution I can believe in and I need the Church to clean up their act,” Leimbach told CNA. “No more of this halfway cleaning it up.”
Leimbach told CNA that she has 16 grandchildren, and they are her primary motivator for pushing for reform in the Church.
“I want them to have this Church,” she said, “and I just don‘t see how they’re going to do it if [the bishops] don't clean up their act.”
Flatley, Leimbach’s friend, told CNA that she had come into the Catholic faith with the help of some of the speakers at the rally, particularly Altman.
Altman was removed from ministry in July 2021, after Bishop William Callahan of La Crosse, Wisc. sought privately to correct the priest for statements he made in social media that some Catholics cheered and others viewed as inflammatory.
“Because of COVID and shutting down the churches, I started listening to different Catholic services with my husband, who is Catholic,” said Flatley. She said prior to entering RCIA, she considered herself to be a “very high Episcopal.”
“And because of Father Altman and Father Jonathan Meyer in Indiana, I have gotten a real strong faith because of them, but I would like the Catholic Church to be a hierarchy that we could believe in,” she said.
“We had to take a stand,” said William Bennett of Chambersburg, Pa., another Father Altman supporter. “I wanted to try to get our Church back. I think it’s been infiltrated from the inside for a long time.”
Bennett, who was carrying a sign that featured a picture of Jesus peeking in from the side saying “I saw what you did to my holy priests,” told CNA that the message was inspired by Altman.
“I mean, when he stood up for what he believed in, he got shut down,” he said. “That‘s what they’re doing to any priest that comes up and stands up for what they believe in and what they‘re supposed to do. They’re being shut out. They‘re being shut down and I think that’s wrong.”
Away from the rally, but expressing similar sentiment, was Angie Thies, who came to Baltimore with a group from north Texas.
Thies told CNA that she was not there just to protest the bishops, but to pray for them.
“[We’re here] to protest the bishops, let them know how we feel about the things that the USCCB is doing, and, to pray for them —mostly to pray for them,” she said, “ We weep for them, really.”
Her neon-green sign proclaimed “You and Biden are causing GRAVE SCANDAL to the faithful!!!”
She told CNA that she and her group were seeking a “more prayerful” and “more peaceful” atmosphere than what was present at the rally, and chose to demonstrate at a different location, away from the microphones, video screens, and stadium-style seating.
Thies told CNA that she was most angered with what she viewed as the bishops’ inaction regarding the sanctity of the Eucharist.
“The Eucharist is the source and summit of the faith,” she said. And for them to give it to people who are causing grave public scandal, then to not safeguard our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament … it is profoundly upsetting,” she said.
Thursday, Nov. 18
On Thursday morning, shortly after sunrise, a different kind of demonstration assembled outside of the venue hotel.
Unlike the others, the people demonstrating were not seething at the bishops. They were, in fact, joined by them, along with other faith leaders from Islamic and Jewish traditions. Also unlike the other demonstrations, this one was marked by ribbons, not signs, and most of the participants were survivors of sexual abuse.
The Pathways to Prevention, Healing and Justice Inaugural Sunrise Walk was organized by the Global Collaborative, “a survivor led network of child advocacy organizations, survivor networks, academic and faith-based institutions, and governments committed to ending Child Sexual Abuse.” Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, was among those participating in the walk.
Dr. Jennifer Wortham, who led the walk, told CNA that it was providential that her planned event coincided with the bishops’ assembly. As part of her work, Wortham is seeking to establish an “Annual Day of Observance for Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Prevention, Healing, and Justice.” Wortham said her brothers were abused by clergy as children.
Nov. 18 is the European Day to End Child Sex Abuse, and Wortham told CNA that she hopes to expand this worldwide.
“My brothers experienced many challenges throughout their lives as a result of their childhood abuse, but I believe the most difficult challenge they experienced was the loss of their faith,” Wortham.
“This walk is just one way to show the collaborative work faith leaders and survivors are making to change the spiritual experience for every survivor and their family.”