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What do Catholics expect from USCCB meeting on abuse crisis?

By Jonah McKeown

Prelates pray during the 2017 fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. The 2021 spring general assembly of the USCCB will take place June 16-18. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Denver, Colo., Nov 9, 2018 / 05:10 pm (CNA).- The annual fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will take place in Baltimore, Maryland next week.

This meeting will discuss a crisis of sexual abuse in the Church, centered around questions about how Archbishop Theodore McCarrick was able to perpetrate decades of sexual abuse against seminarians and young priests while operating at the highest levels of the Church in the United States.

There are plans to discuss a “Code of Conduct” for all bishops, along with a third-party system for receiving and investigating sexual abuse complaints against bishops.

But is this meeting likely to bring healing to sexual abuse victims, or begin a process of renewal in the Church?

CNA spoke with theologians, priests, and other prominent Catholics about what they hope to see at the upcoming meeting of U.S. bishops.

“Rebuilding trust from the ground up”

Dr Timothy O’Malley, Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, told CNA that he is hoping for a recognition on the part of the bishops of the existence of a “real crisis.” He said there must be an investigation into how McCarrick was allowed to commit years of abuse.

“There has to be a recognition, I think, on the part of the bishops that this is a real crisis and that it’s not just sort of trumped-up charges by a media that is provocative, but that actually it really is a crisis,” O’Malley said.

“There needs to be serious movement toward the creation of ombudspersons with real authority and responsibility in diocese, to be the source of the response. It’s not just going to be bishops who will receive the response; it’s going to be these laypeople,” he said.

O’Malley said he hopes that this recognition of the existence of a crisis will lead to real penance from the bishops.

“Penance isn’t really supposed to be publicly proclaimed, and so I think there needs to be real penance…not a prayer service where everyone sees the bishops and how sorrowful they are…I think it just needs to be serious in the sense that harm has been done and real sorrow. And it can’t be a media opportunity.”

O’Malley said if the bishops manage to get beyond their personal “political battles,” there’s a chance the meeting might produce some results.

“This meeting will be important if it develops procedures and processes by which the bishops hold themselves accountable, and I think the real work for rebuilding trust is always going to happen at the local level,” O’Malley said.

“What’s really going to [restore trust] is local bishops rebuilding trust from the ground up. And for a lot of them, they actually can because they’re trustworthy people…they have to keep their eyes very carefully located on the crisis of trust that was precipitated through Theodore McCarrick.”

“Taking time to pray together”

Father Thomas Berg, Vice Rector and Director of Admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York, told CNA that beyond a possible revision to the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the establishment of an independent lay body to investigate the McCarrick affair, he’s “not expecting much else.”

“I don’t think there’s going to be time at this meeting on anything outside of those two things. Other than taking time to pray together,” he said.

Berg expressed frustration that the bishops hadn’t met sooner to discuss the crisis.

“They should have suspended all activities, all vacations, and they should have commenced meetings immediately back in June or July,” he said.

“I think there’s a great amount of pressure now to do anything that the bishops are able to do.”

“Well, it’s our Church”

Father Bryan Kerns, O.S.A., offered his perspective to CNA as a young priest who had followed the progress of the abuse scandal.

He said since he was only 13 years old in 2002, he “entered [priestly] formation in light of the reality of the scandal.”

He said the resignation and “quiet despair” from some Catholics in the pews, many of whom already lived through the 2002 scandal, scares him. He said other young priests that he knows are unsure of the best way to respond.

“[We] want action, but there’s no one engaged enough ecclesiastically to understand how to affect action, to call forth for certain reforms,” Kerns said. “So I think [we young priests] lack an adequate mode of expression.”

“Among my peers it’s more along the lines of: ‘Well, it’s our Church, so it’s our job to help bring the truth about. Let the truth see the light.’ But they don’t quite know how to do it.”

Kerns the best-case scenario would be “action:” steps toward a more open process, and a reckoning with what has happened in the Church in the past 50 or 60 years in the United States.

“I don’t expect an adequate response to that,” he admitted.

The worst-case scenario, Kerns said, would be “more of the same,” more “sorry” and less actual action.

“I think…that the American bishops really have an opportunity to take the lead in setting the tone for accountability and transparency,” Kerns said.

“For them not to take that opportunity would not result in the destruction of the Church in the United States, would not result in a mass exodus— but it would cause [deep seated and resigned] damage that would take a long, long time to repair.”

“Perfect opportunity to expand the role of women”

Dr. Grazie Christie, Policy Advisor for the Catholic Association, said investigating the Cardinal McCarrick affair and redoubling their commitment to a “culture of life” and religious liberty should be priorities of the upcoming meeting.

Christie was one nearly 50,000 women who signed a letter to Pope Francis seeking answers about the situation with McCarrick.

“The recent Synod document called for more active involvement for women, and this would be a perfect opportunity to expand the role of women,” she wrote in an email to CNA.

“Laywomen, in particular, who love and support the Church and are active in their parishes can be helpful to the Bishops when it comes to identifying good priests and religious and recommending future leaders.”

“A systemic ‘looking the other way’”

Dr. Nathaniel Peters, Executive Director of the Morningside Institute, told CNA that the bishops’ response to the abuse crisis should reflect their status as spiritual fathers to American Catholics.

Peters was among the signatories of an August letter from young Catholics to Catholic bishops.

“A lot of the responses that we’ve gotten from bishops [to the crisis] have been the responses that presidents of non-profit organizations make,” Peters said.

“Which are all well and good…bishops are kind of managerial, and [do] govern. But…bishops are also fathers, and their responses should sound on some level like a father…not one primarily of damage control.”

Peters said he hopes the bishops will make clear that the Church’s parlance of “vulnerable adults” should include seminarians and priests as well. In his eyes, the problem is not just that children are involved, but a general decline of chastity and a rise of sexual assault; a “systemic looking the other way” and avoidance of confrontation over sin.

He emphasized that the bishops need to recognize that the current crisis in the Church is not “just” about the abuse of children, as pressing as that issue is, but also issues of abuses of power more generally.

“I would want the bishops to make clear that they understand that the problem isn’t just that there were a few bad priests that preyed on children years ago, and that we’ve ‘fixed’ that now,” he said.

“The bishops have not clearly communicated that it’s wrong to prey on seminarians, that it’s wrong for priests to live double lives and be sexually active, whether or not they are sexually active with people who are consenting…with men or with women.”

He said the bishops’ credibility on a host of moral issues, including abortion and immigration, has taken a hit, especially among young people.

“I think the worst case scenario would be that the worst responses that we’ve gotten from individual bishops emerge as the corporate response of the body as a whole,” he said.

“That the bishops would be seen to be more managerial than paternal…that people come away with a sense that not much has changed, or that bishops are not really interested in actually making the changes that need to be made.”

Alternatively, he said, the best-case scenario would involve bishops who have wanted to kind of work toward systemic changes in their diocese, and more broadly in the Church, feel empowered to do so.

“When it comes to cases of sexual assault in the Church, this shouldn’t be a [political] matter, it should really just be a matter of opposition and a desire for justice and truth when violations take place,” Peters said.

“And it also shouldn’t be about covering for the person on your “side”…what’s more important than the “victory” of your theological position at this point is the vindication of victims, and exposing the truth about evil that’s committed in the Church.”

Peters expressed consternation at the fact that government authorities are taking it upon themselves to investigate some diocese across the country because of a lack of transparency.

“Certainly 5 years ago, 10 years ago, among the young Catholics I know, if you had told us that the attorney generals for a handful of states are going to go after the Church with racketeering laws, we would have said immediately, ‘This is terrible, this is anti-Catholic bias,’” he said.

“It’s very striking that those same people now have basically said, ‘Good.’ And if you’re a bishop, that should be really sobering…the people who are your closest supporters are happy that state— and now federal— prosecutors have your diocese in their crosshairs. Because they think that that’s how [the Church] is actually going to be changed.”

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  1. I didn’t see any mention of removing homosexual clerics and those bishops who support support them from the ranks. I’ll try to make this as succinct and clear as I can: “If the clergy is not cleansed of homosexuality, the predation of minors and those of less power by the more powerful will continue. The bishops ignore the elephant in the room at their own peril.

  2. The horse is already out of the barn. Catholics, whether young, old, or middle-aged, have lost confidence in bishops to do anything but lie, deflect, and deny. As was the case in 1985, 1995, 2002, and 2018, the sole and exclusive authority that cut through the cant and coverup was the civil and criminal arm of the secular state that identified, indicted, convicted, and imprisoned the guilty and made dioceses and bishops financially responsible for the hideous crimes they committed. The bishops’ manufactured apologies and “new-and-improved policies and procedures” will rightfully receive the scorn they deserve. Bring it all on, the state Attorney Generals and the federal Department of Justice RICO investigation. Since bishops will not resign and the Vatican insists on pretending that silence is a solution, let us see all the guilty exchange their black, purple, and scarlet for orange in their perp walks to court and prison. That indeed is “how the Church is actually going to be changed.”

  3. This convert is expecting…nothing much really. They will not address homosexuality in the priesthood or prevent them from entering the seminaries.
    I was mildly engaged when our bishop sent out a letter asking for prayers and fasting for the meeting. Come to find out, it was not his letter at all. The bishop in the diocese next door sent out the exact same, word-for-word, letter. A form letter, no doubt written by some bureaucrat with the USCCB.
    I do feel for our bishop somewhat. He’s from “the old country” and arrived in the States not knowing much English (we attend an Eastern Rite parish). And to walk into this swamp.

  4. As Pope Benedict once remarked, National Conferences of Bishops, such as the USCCB, are NOT part of the Church’s governance.

    Ours was literally engineered by McCarrick, and men like him. It functions to magnify the power of frauds like McCarrick, and we all witnessed that.

    The only authority is the voice of a Bishop faithful to the Gospel of The Lord Jesus.

    All else exists to dilute and suffocate and silence faithful Bishops.

    The range of outcomes from a USCCB conference is from mush to utter betrayal.

    I pray the Lord for courageous Bishops.

    Cardinal O’Malley is a part and symptom of the McCarrick establishment.

    The mush about policies and procedures is quite literally the spirit of McCarrick still talking through all of his pals among the counterfeit shepherds.

    If and when many of these living Bishops are investigated by authorities and evidence is exposed of grave deceit, such as done by Cardinal Wuerl, and IF this leads to their actual admission of their sin against the Gospel of The Lord, and they are punished with a serious sentence by the Pope (yet to happen), then justice will reign, and trust will abide because of justice.

    If not, they will die without trust, because they denied the justice of the Lord Jesus.

    Come Holy Spirit…set fire…

  5. Nov. 10th: How pathetic that Bishops need a “Code of Conduct”! If they don’t already know how to conduct themselves as Christians then perhaps they should take a sabbatical, a long retreat in a Monastery to learn how to be a Bishop. And why is Cdl. Tobin involved? He didn’t even go to Rome for the Synod because he is part of the problem.

    • The very idea of a “code of conduct” bespeaks the fact that this enterprise – the episcopate, and by no means the American episcopate alone, but the entire episcopate starting in Rome – is stuck on stupid. The epitome of protracted adolescences stuck in a sandbox. And that anyone would suggest the “magic wand” of “woman” demonstrates that the problem does not belong to solely to men. The cognitive dysfunction is mortifying. It is staggering.
      Wake up, fly right, don’t hurt the kids and don’t scare the horses. Abandon the “Romper Room” ethics and comportment. Begin to behave and think like adult Catholic men whose reasoning processes have developed beyond a politically correct post-Vatican II pre-school.
      Despite what one prominent member of the global episcopate has suggested, souls are immortal and hell awaits.
      Get it, gentlemen?

  6. Catholics in the pews know there are bad bishops. They understand that these men are not restrained by policies and procedures and third party reporting and what not; they have to be identified and publicly exposed. If the bishops don’t do that at this meeting, if they don’t condemn by individual names those among them who aided McCarrick, those who abide homosecual sodomy in their chanceries and seminaries, then the credibility and moral authority of American bishops will remain in shreds.

  7. Nov. 10th: This is a well thought out essay and I hope it will be read by at least some of the Bishops attending the Conference. Whenever I notice Cdl. McCarrick’s name and te crisis of trust I want to express my feelings that he too is a victim – a victim of those who did not have the Christian love to confront Cdl. McCarrick and get him help. It is obvious to many that McCarrick was and is a deeply disturbed man who never should have been admitted to the seminary. But he is also a very charismatic man who was a phenomenal fund raiser for the Vatican and for Churches everywhere. He is to be pitied! I agree that there needs to be real penance on the part of each individual Bishop – and not penance done as a media exhibition of remorse. Good and faithful Catholic lay women should be involved in all Dioceses and Parishes and there should be a constant monitoring of Parish finances since it seems hundreds of thousands of dollars were taken from Parish funds to make payments on behalf of abusive Priests to their victims. Priests who abused others should be defrocked, get jobs and pay out of their own pockets. “The Bishops have clearly communicated that it’s wrong to prey on seminarians, … wrong for priests to live double lives and be sexually active…with men or women” How absolutely absurd that grown men who are seminarians need to be told that??? If they don’t know that they should not have been accepted into the seminary. How and why do Bishops and Priests not know how to live the Commandments? It is so basic to every Christian. This USCCB Conference, in my opinion, will do nothing that is relevant if they don’t know right from wrong and so need to draw up a “Code of Conduct”…we need to pray for the grace and guidance and power of the Holy Spirit to break open their minds and their hearts so that they will see and understand exactly what it means to be a shepherd in the image of the Good Shepherd. So, let us pray.

  8. Catholics [implying Laity] expect real change. Our conundrum is Laity and clergy are split as to change, progressive or return to tradition. If the focus is essentially homosexual abuse within clerical ranks, lower ranks come under jurisdiction of local ordinaries, local ordinaries under the Pope. Although Dr O’Malley’s suggested “Building trust from the ground up” is plausible in theory it’s not in fact. The reason there is no real consensus among local ordinaries. The realistic expectation is the issuing excellent ideas, incentive programs that as previous except in dioceses with faithful bishops will fall short of effecting real change. There are ordinaries [Cardinals Cupich, Farrell Prefect of the Dicastery on Laity and Family, J Tobin] appointed by the Vatican and many who align themselves with them to promote progressive change meaning a more liberal approach to homosexuality. Without strong pontifical commitment [Pope Francis is evidently poised to move the Church in the opposite direction] real change is remote. Laity are essential in this matter and should be consulted as in 2002. The best response is from former Lay USCCB official Jayd Henricks, “There is, however, something wrong with how the body of bishops functions as an assembly and how bishops relate to and interact with one another. Far too often, fear appears to govern what is done or not done by you as a body. There is the fear of disunity, fear of conflict, fear of disrupting a superficial collegiality, and today, more than ever, fear of Rome” (Jayd Henricks). This exhortation by a layman supports the fact that faithful Laity are better positioned to compel bishops to act. Without fear of the Vatican since Laity are canonically empowered to consult, implore hierarchy to address matters of faith. Bishops are obliged to act during this crisis, overlook protocol and challenge their peers to begin the process of restoring practice of the faith.

  9. Groups of honest men do not need “Codes of Conduct” You only need such codes when the men you have selected for the job are rotten to the core, and they need outside guidance to tell them what to do and not do – because their inner guide is rotten or non existent.

    The crisis is very severe. We have homosexuals running the show. So of course a meeting of homosexuals will not talk about the main problem – homosexuality. Their only goal at this meeting is to seem to do something while doing nothing. Homosexuals are running the church. Everything bad in the church in the last fifty years flows from this fact. We can expect no help from Rome, because Rome is a homosexual place now, too, under Pope Francis. The only hope is the laity demanding that the bishops resign or get the hell out of the way. We have had enough of them trying to divert the attention of the faithful from the real causes. Imagine you are a bishop – one of the good ones. You meet with men who you cannot be sure of. You start treating bishops as a group that has to have codes of conduct because all they do is evil things. Half of the men in your group are dedicated to evil. But you don’t know which ones, apart from Cupich Nighty Night baby, Farrell and a few others. Evil men posing as good men. Their hearts are dedicated to evil. What do you do? It’s a difficult question. But people now at last realize the bishops are the source of much of the evil.

  10. A code of conduct? And maybe a dress code? Roll call? Bed check?

    Perhaps our bishops will be monitored by the fashionable blogging priests who take pictures of their lunch entrees in Rome and sneer at the quality of the merlot served in first class.

  11. It is indeed the homosexuality…and the resultant lack of any real concern for the possibility of losing God forever and ending up in hell.

  12. This is all very rich, isn’t it?
    If the parents of these bishops, their Catechism instructors, their theology teachers, their seminary directors and their spiritual directors did not get home the message, well, this (yet another) meeting certiainly will not.
    Impossible, way too little, way too late. “How to act like a Bishop – 101”….thats what this is. Embarrassingly stupid.
    DiNardo, et al, will not speak the words “homosexual priests”. In their minds they dare not even think this too loudly.
    God bless the Archbishop of Philadelphia and Madison and Springfield, Ill and all other bishops who publicly act to defend the Church and lead souls to Christ. They are few. The others are corrupt or scared to death.
    And still, today, the sexual monster, McCarrick, is still an archbishop. By the grace of His Holiness, Francis.

  13. Now that the Pontiff has given them cover to not do anything about addressing the number of homosexuals masquerading as Priests and Bishops until February – wink, wink – I expect most of them will return home with their tails between their legs and maintain their pact of silence on the crisis. However they will continue to issue nonsensical prudential statements about “climate change”, the plight of the illegal aliens planning to invade from the south, how wonderful it is that Democrats will take over the House of Representatives in January, how evil the Trump administration is, the sin of capitalism, the virtues of socialism, the benefits of single payer healthcare, the wonderful developments in allowing the PRC to choose Bishops in China, why the Church needs to ordain women, et al. They will also lobby for large donations to the Christmas collection as well as their annual slush funds known as Diocesan Appeals. In other words, business as usual.

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