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.”