This week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) gathered in Baltimore for its annual fall meeting, intending to vote on policies related to the sexual-abuse crisis that boiled over in the U.S. this summer.
As one might have expected after observing the way many in the hierarchy handled the last few months of controversy, that didn’t happen.
When the meeting began, USCCB president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo announced that the Vatican had insisted that the bishops not vote on any proposals related to preventing or adjudicating sexual-misconduct claims. The instruction from on high was that these matters must wait until after they could be addressed at a February meeting of Church leadership at the Holy See.
This is the latest evidence that many of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church — Pope Francis included — intend to delay providing transparency and substantive reform as long as possible, or at least to keep faithful Catholics in the dark until leaders can devise their own private strategy.
As a result of this directive, this week’s meeting resulted in little practical progress. Prior to the letter from the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops — which has yet to be made public, and likely won’t be — the USCCB planned to consider creating both a code of conduct for bishops and a laity-led panel to investigate claims of misconduct or negligence on the part of Church leaders.
According to reporting from Catholic News Agency (CNA), the bishops in attendance seemed surprised by DiNardo’s announcement that no votes would take place on these proposals. One notable exception was Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, “who rose immediately to say that ‘it is clear the Holy See is taking the abuse crisis seriously.’”
Earlier in this week’s meetings, Cupich addressed concerns about sexual misconduct in the clergy unrelated to abuse of minors, saying, “In some of the cases with adults involving clerics, it could be consensual sex. . . . There’s a whole different set of circumstances.”
The archbishop of Chicago also made news this summer when he was asked about Pope Francis’s handling of the allegations against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Cupich said that “the pope has a bigger agenda” and has “got to get on with other things, of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the Church” rather than clarifying the situation with McCarrick.
CNA also reported that during the meetings, Bishop Robert Barron, an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, asked about the Vatican’s investigation of the McCarrick allegations, including whether bishops might “bring any respectful pressure to bear” on the Holy See. According to CNA, “DiNardo replied that the four dioceses in which McCarrick had served had opened investigations but said he did not know of the status of a Vatican investigation.”
Given the way this meeting unfolded, it seems unlikely that Catholics will find out the status of that investigation any time soon, which appears to be what the Vatican and much of the hierarchy wants.
In perhaps the crowning insult of this week’s events, the U.S. bishops considered a resolution that read: “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.”
Even this half-hearted measure failed by a 137–83 vote, with three bishops abstaining. The vote was conducted using a private electronic ballot — perhaps the perfect image for the Catholic hierarchy today. What better system than a secret vote for protecting the cone of silence that keeps clergy and laity on the outside looking in, unable even to determine whether their own bishop is asking for transparency?
“If there’s one thing that nags at everyone, it’s the Archbishop McCarrick thing,” DiNardo said this week, speaking of the letters the USCCB has received from Catholics in recent months. “It seems to be ubiquitous. This is the one that I think has to be addressed. It’s just bad for our people.”
DiNardo is right. Catholic laity and clergy cried out for answers in the weeks following the McCarrick scandal, the subsequent allegation that Pope Francis and other Church leaders had ignored sanctions placed on the former cardinal, and the devastating Pennsylvania grand-jury report detailing horrific sexual abuse of minors.
But those cries for the truth went unanswered, and with this failed vote and derailed meeting, the status quo prevails once again. Catholics in the U.S. and around the world deserve better.