Making sense of the USCCB fall assembly and its aftermath

If the bishops cannot break their thrall to their umbrella organization, and their paralysis within the warped culture of cronyism that structure fosters from top to bottom, all under the more general rubric of collegiality, it will likely be their undoing.

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, apostolic administrator of the Washington Archdiocese, listens to a speaker Nov. 14 at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

In the wake of reports that the intrusion of the Holy See on the proceedings of the USCCB fall meeting in Baltimore was even more extensive than previously understood, and that the Holy See’s intrusion involved high-ranking members of the Conference in its organization and execution, frustration and outrage has increased across broad quarters of the Catholic body. Some of that frustration and outrage will inevitably result in railing and denunciation, but this moment in the life of the Church and in the US theater of the global crisis calls for cold analysis.

“Wuerl’s plan”
The Archbishop-emeritus of Washington, DC (who is the current apostolic administrator of the same), Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, and the current Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich, are the two US members of the Congregation for Bishops. That Congregation was directly responsible for conveying the “request” to USCCB leadership, that the bishops refrain from voting on reform measures at their Fall Meeting.

On Friday, Catholic News Agency reported that Cardinal Wuerl and Cardinal Cupich collaborated extensively on a proposal presented to the bishops as an alternative to the proposals on which the Holy See instructed them not to vote. “Wuerl’s plan,” as CNA reports it was known in the Congregation for Bishops, would have seen allegations of episcopal misconduct sent to the metropolitan archbishop, and eventually to archdiocesan review boards, with accusations against metropolitans being investigated by the senior bishops of the metropolitan’s own ecclesiastical province.

Basically, bishops would investigate bishops under the Wuerl-Cupich plan, with underlings investigating their bosses in case of accusation against metropolitan archbishops. And two men who are known to be the Pope’s men, each with ties to Uncle Ted McCarrick, are architects of the proposal.

The US bishops gathered for their Fall Meeting did not take even a straw vote on either their original proposals, or the Wuerl-Cupich alternative, though Cardinal DiNardo did agree to appoint a task force comprised of former USCCB presidents — Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, and Archbishop Wilton Gregory — to develop both sets of options and give them to DiNardo to present at the meeting of the leadership of the world’s bishops’ conferences scheduled for February 21-24 in the Vatican.

The optics are very bad. Viewed from any vantage point, the collapse of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops beneath the weight of its members’ corruption, cowardice, and incompetence is an awful thing. That circumstances, at least, make it appear quite possibly to have been aided by two men already tainted by the crisis, who also are known to be “in” with Pope Francis, does nothing to improve appearances.

The Pope’s messengers
It will take a good deal of feeling around to get it, but we start well by skipping debate over optics: Pope Francis did this thing.

When it comes to the leadership of the USCCB, and their ability to guide the ship through the troubled waters in which she finds herself, Pope Francis has given what is in essence an unequivocal vote of no confidence:

  • He made the Conference leadership wait nearly a month for a meeting in which to make their formal request for an investigation into the rise of the disgraced former Archbishop of Washington, DC, Theodore Edgar “Uncle Ted” McCarrick;
  • He rejected their request for an investigation;
  • He suggested they skip their Fall Meeting entirely and hold a spiritual retreat in lieu of it;
  • He “requested” they not vote on their reform proposals, even as he allowed two other major national conferences — France and Italy — to adopt their own measures.

As if in order to remove any doubt, the Apostolic Nuncio to the US, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, said in his remarks to the bishops, “If we are together, in real hierarchical communion — hierarchical communion that permeates our hearts and are not merely words — we become the visible sign of peace, unity, and love, a sign of true synodality.” We all know who is at the head of that hierarchical communion. At this point, it should be clear that “true synodality” is whatever that chief hierarch says it is.

Archbishop Pierre also said, “As said from the time of diplomacy in the Greek City-States, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger.’ (And, as a Nuncio, I can assure you it is a phrase very dear to me!)” Archbishop Pierre was in the quoted passage from his address speaking specifically to the role of the media in highlighting the failures of the bishops. Nevertheless, the message was clear: everyone in that room knew whose messenger Pierre is.

Cardinal DiNardo’s attempt to place responsibility for the thing at the door to the Congregation for Bishops is not likely to convince anyone. “We are Roman Catholic bishops, in communion with our Holy Father in Rome,” DiNardo told reporters on Monday afternoon. “He has people around him who are what we call congregations or offices, and we’re responsible to them, in that communion of faith,” he added.

Legal ramifications
In any case, the intrusion of the Holy See on the proceedings in Baltimore may have created more trouble than Francis wanted. Plaintiffs on Tuesday of last week filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, naming both the USCCB and the Holy See as defendants in the civil RICO complaint.

The Holy See has shielded itself — thus far successfully — from civil liability related to abuse, by arguing that bishops are not employees or officials of the Holy See. If the bishops are thus beholden not only to the Pope but to his central governing apparatus, it stands to reason that a lawyer might ask a court to take a closer look at the nuts and bolts of the bishops’ relationship to Rome.

The US bishops’ acquiescence to the Pope’s “request” for a delay — it could be argued — is just the sort of thing that gets the camel’s nose under the tent. Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston-based attorney who has been representing victims of clerical sexual abuse since the early 2000s, told CWR, “Even if the Holy See framed their order as a request, the key point is that the bishops abided by it. It tends to show a nexus of oversight.”

Garabedian also told CWR, “If the Holy See ordered the bishops not to vote on the policy measures, that would weaken the Holy See’s claim that the bishops aren’t agents of the Holy See.”

Here the legalities become complex, and depend largely on how judges decide to parse and apply standards of exception to sovereign immunity articulated in 28 USC 1605. Suffice it to say for the moment that the Holy See’s action, and the US bishops’ response, may have made the situation more complicated.

Bishop Christopher Coyne suggested the delay could have a salutary effect. “We in the U.S. can have a limited view of the worldwide church,” Coyne told The Washington Post, also on Monday afternoon. “It would be difficult if we came up with [different] policies and procedures,” the Post also quotes him as saying. Why that would be difficult at all, and why any eventual difficulties in that line should be insurmountable, are things Bishop Coyne left unexplored.

Ecclesial geometry
How that squares with Pope Francis’s view of the Church as a polyhedron, is not entirely clear. “[O]ur model [for the Church] is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the center, and there are no differences between them,” Pope Francis writes in paragraph 236 of Evangelii gaudium. “Instead,” he continues, “it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness.”

We know Francis allowed the French bishops to vote on reform measures last week, which included an independent investigation of their conduct with respect to clerical abuse since 1950. We also know he allowed the Italian bishops to vote on their own safeguarding measures at an extraordinary plenary that took place at the Vatican and roughly in concurrence with the US bishops’ gathering in Baltimore.

Neither the Pope, nor the bishops, can have it both ways: which is it going to be?

Most of the drama played in the first ten working minutes of the first public session on Monday morning, when USCCB President Daniel Cardinal DiNardo — who faces his own difficulties in his See of Galveston-Houston — announced that Rome had “requested” the bishops not vote on measures designed to protect the young and the vulnerable from the predations of evil bishops and secure a measure of episcopal accountability with regard to their duties of oversight and governance.

Three days of mostly scripted theatre ensued. The various interventions made and positions staked are amply documented, and require no rehearsal here. They terminated in a vote on the following measure:

Regarding the ongoing investigation of the Holy See into the case of Archbishop McCarrick, be it resolved that the bishops of the USCCB encourage the Holy See to release soon all documentation that can be released consistent with canon and civil law regarding the allegations of misconduct against Archbishop McCarrick.

In case the reader has not heard by now, the bishops punted. Perhaps more closely, but still in the sporting metaphor, they called a play on fourth down, then snapped the ball, and took a knee. The vote was 83-137, with three abstentions. They could not bring themselves to ask the Holy See to share the documents it uncovers during its unsupervised internal audit of its own McCarrick files.

If the bishops cannot break their thrall to their umbrella organization, and their paralysis within the warped culture of cronyism that structure fosters from top to bottom, all under the more general rubric of collegiality, it will likely be their undoing. It may already have been.

Voices raised
It is true that, from the floor, a few bishops noted the cultural rot. Bishop Stephen Biegler of Cheyenne addressed what he called a culture of “toxic brotherhood” fostered under the guise of collegiality:

Some bishops fostered a “toxic brotherhood” which caused them to overlook questionable behavior, ignore rumors of problems, believe clerical denials and seek to preserve a cleric’s ability to minister. At times, they acted to protect the reputation of the Church or clergy, while they shunned the victims/survivors of sexual abuse and their families. Bishops frequently ignored the voices of the laity who spoke up about sexual abuse and the mishandling of allegations; instead, they acted within institutional isolation.

That is all true. The problem with the statement is that it employed the wrong verb tense. There was plenty of each index of toxicity on display during the three days’ deliberations in Baltimore. None was more egregious than the speech of the Archbishop-emeritus of Los Angeles, Roger Cardinal Mahony. It was beyond farcical to hear the bishops wonder aloud how they would have treated Uncle Ted if he had dared show his face at the meeting, when they welcomed Mahony and gave him a respectful hearing.

Bishop Shawn McKnight has received praise for some forceful words he spoke on the sidelines of the Baltimore meeting, and others he wrote in the wake of it. “At the time of this writing, there has not been one bishop, archbishop or cardinal in either the Holy See or the United States who has come forward on his own to repent publicly of his sins of omission or commission with regard to Archbishop McCarrick’s series of promotions over decades,” wrote McKnight — who was consecrated and installed in his See of Jefferson City, Missouri, only this past February — in a letter to the faithful of his diocese, which he posted to his diocesan website after returning from Baltimore.

“Please, be men, not cowards, and come clean on your own!” McKnight exhorted his brethren in a letter not addressed to them, a letter written from his own See, to which he had just returned after several days in the bishops’ company. “There doesn’t have to be a formal and long, drawn out investigation,” McKnight also noted in the letter, “for a bishop to exercise a little compunction and concern for the well-being of the whole Church.”

Lack of will
Awful as l’Affaire McCarrick doubtless is, McCarrick is only the worst of the lot — the worst we know of, at any rate. Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo sat with the other bishops, and received not a single call from the floor to answer for himself, though he is credibly accused of grossly mishandling several cases in his diocese.

The head of the US Bishops’ National Review Board, Francesco Cesareo — a layman and president of Assumption College in Worcester, Ma. — told the bishops, “While much of the guilt has been placed on priests, bishops have often escaped punishment.” He went on to say, “As more information is publicized regarding the inappropriate handling of abuse by bishops, it remains clear that some bishops have escaped the consequences of their acts of omission regarding abuse, and that little is being done to address this injustice.”

The problem is not a want of information at this point, but a lack of will.

The Bishops of the Missouri Province wrote a blunt, direct letter to Bishop Timothy L. Doherty of Lafayette, Indiana, who is Chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People. Their letter was dated October 6th. They made it public on November 12th, after the Holy See spiked the US Bishops’ proposals.

“The McCarrick scandal has shaken not only the confidence of Catholics,” the Missouri bishops wrote, “but also of others who look to our Church for moral guidance.” They went on to say, “It is our moral obligation to acknowledge the negative consequences of a pastoral strategy of silence and inaction in the face of such a horrific scandal that is so widely known.”

“The very credibility of the Church has already been seriously damaged by a persistent silence and inaction over many decades,” the Missouri bishops said — and they are not wrong.

Morality and monsters
Nevertheless, the almost exclusive focus on the corporate moral obligation of all the bishops together elides the duty of each bishop toward the same. So long as the bishops insist on acting only or even primarily as a body, the bishops deserve — in justice — to be judged according to the worst of their lot. The worst of their lot are monsters, though there is still a general clerical unwillingness to admit even that. The president of the University of Notre Dame, Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, drew significant flak last week for some comments he made regarding Uncle Ted McCarrick specifically, and the broad crisis, generally.

In an exclusive interview with Crux, he said, “There’s a tendency, and I don’t think it’s a helpful tendency in this kind of situation, to turn the perpetrators into monsters.” Jenkins went on to say, “[The tendency is] just to imagine that they are thoroughly corrupt people, but the problem is that it’s not true. It’s a part of their lives that is deeply problematic, but another part that is not.”

“That’s why it’s so hard to identify the problem,” Fr. Jenkins added, “and sometimes, that person doesn’t seem to see the problem.”

Fr. Jenkins’ line reminded me of a conversation many years ago — a typical newsroom shop session — in which we were talking about the classification of Hamas as a terrorist organization. “Well, it seems pretty straightforward to me,” I said roughly, “they kill civilians on purpose and break things to make a political point.” One of my interlocutors responded, roughly, “It’s more complicated than that,” adding, “they run maternity clinics and distribute medicine, baby formula, and the like.” I responded, “There’s nothing complicated about that: Hamas are terrorists who run maternity clinics and distribute medicine, baby formula, and the like.”

Many of us expect our devils to appear as great cloven-hoofed beasts: mouths dripping, tails lashing, pitchforks poised. In reality, the Devil appears most often and most dangerously as “a man of wealth and taste”: a “lover” of exquisite things and a “friend” who is a fixer; a gregarious chap, at once familiar and powerful. The devil, in short, looks like Uncle Ted McCarrick.

When he finds himself up a tree, he will adopt all sorts of guises. Most often, though, he will feign ineptitude and attempt to lull those who have treed him into complacency, if not to elicit their pity. The devil, in short, often looks like Ted McCarrick — and when he’s in a bind, he looks and acts like Verbal Kint.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 245 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. There once was a USCCB,
    Which took orders directly from the Holy See.
    One day as they gathered, the Pope said “it don’t matter,
    I’ll see you in February.”

    There once was a Cardinal McCarrick,
    Whose behaviour was disgustingly “ick.”
    Uncle Ted it was said, invited seminarians to bed,
    While our bishops’ response has been sick.

    There once was a Cardinal Mahoney,
    Whose remarks were considered baloney.
    While Cupich and Wuerl were doing a twirl,
    His brother bishops thought him a phone.

  2. How bad are things really? So bad that the only hope for reform may lie in RICO laws, and the possibility that many dioceses and bishops could be under criminal indictment. It’s a pity the chief criminals in Rome appear to be out of reach of the law. I am prepared to see the Church in America lose ALL her properties, ALL her schools and churches. Let us become an underground Church, with real priests and a handful of bishops. That may be the only way to rescue the Gospel from the frauds of the USCCB.

  3. Notice one thing. Over and over again, the bishops have issued statements that indicate they are angry, sad, upset, going to do something, appalled, worried about……what? Examine closely what they are appalled by. In almost all cases, NONE of them has said that they are worried upset appalled by the fact that large sections of the priesthood are infested with homosexuals who brought on all of these scandals. Look at the “good guys” listed in the above article. None of them mentions homoseuality. The use euphemisms, other words, different takes on things designed to fool people into thinking they are taking about the real problem when they are not at all. They are all trying to fool you. And some of you are buying it. Over time, we will find that they have reduced the McCarrick thing to “child abuse” which is exactly how the homosexualists want to spin this. In fact, the McCarrick thing is about homosexual networks perverting things entirely, about seminaries full of homosexuals, put there by homosexual bishops. But almost no bishop has been able to say this. instead, they are successfully getting people to think this is all about child abuse. Just like in 2002, when they fooled you the last time.

    • Excellent, Samton909! You understand the REAL problem. Please pull Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison WS “Letter to the Faithful regarding the Ongoing Sex Abuse Crisis”. He, too, is placing the problem where is belongs. I believe the Church in America needs a coalition of priests and lay people willing to call an ace and ace and a spade a spade. There was an article in the National Catholic Register, Sep 2-15, 2018 page 2 that draws addition to Bishop Morlino’s letter. I would love to get Bishop Morlino, Bishop Robert Barron and Fr Mark Goring together and discuss this “coalition” I spoke of so that Catholics who truly love the Church can have a voice! There is no one better in the Catholic world than Bishop Barron in being able to articulate teaches and bring opposing sides together to “dialoge” a solution. I have written to Bishop Barron asking for a YouTube video or a DVD from his ministry Word On Fire addressing this specific problem. These poor souls that have chosen this life of filth need our prayers and our help, not our approval as the United States Supreme Court has done in recognizing so-called Gay “marriage” I pray for these poor people every day that God will grant that they find their true humanity. There is a homo-heresy developing in the Church that must NOT be allowed to continue. Sadly, the actions from Rome seem to indicate that MUCH of the Holy SEE is involved! Let’s pray not! Thank you for your honest, bold and forthcoming comment. We will see

  4. More but true humor. At least as never recanted. A seafaring uncle on excursion with locals hunting ape meat in Brazil’s rainforests noticed the peculiar treeing and feigning some pretending they held infants. Uncle Mario presumed intelligent appeal for compassion strikingly similar to Altieri’s descript of the treeing of McCarrick. If evolutionists are correct Man likely possesses atavistic tendencies. Although I was taken aback when I thought he was going to reference the chief hierarch. Although if true does Man’s moral compass define humanness?

  5. Nov. 19th: In the above picture at the right shoulder of Wuerl is Arch. Mansell, formerly Archbishop of Hartford, CT. Despite the fact that he had for years brought young seminarians over from South America and sent them out to Seminaries, some known to be open to homosexuality (including Holy Apostles in CT. which cleaned house immediately of all the filth as soon as they realized what Mansell had done; despite Mansell’s evil doings he was recently concelebrating Mass at the Cathedral in Hartford for two young seminarians being ordained. More recently he was on the altar of the Cathedral as the new auxiliary Bishop was being installed and actually went up and put his hands on the new Bishop’s head in blessing – I almost cried out: “Take your hands, which have done such filthy things, off him.” But I stayed quiet. How can this be? How can Mansell be permitted to continue to participate in sacred celebrations as if nothing so vile had been done by him. I’ve been tempted to write to Arch. Blair asking him why but then I wondered – is it possible that Blair doesn’t know? Pope Francis really needs to act and to speak out – demanding that all involved in this abuse be barred from public ministry. Imagine the horror of the victims of abuse when they see their abusers going on as usual, engaged publicly in sacred ministries.

  6. I would like to know the names of the 83 Bishops who voted in favor of disclosing the McCarrick files, as they are the only Bishops who should not be required to resign.

  7. Fr. Jenkins game of telling us that there was some good in the man, requires us to also praise Judas Iscariot because he was among the numbered whom Christ sent forth to preach and heal. What’s next, consideration for sainthood.

  8. The events, and the response of the bishops to the crisis arising from them, have made all thinking Catholics cynics.

    Maybe it’s time for a good old-fashioned schism.

  9. There has been a long standing effort to dismantle the Catholic Church because it is the true church, giving Jesus Christ to us in the pews, in His Holy Body and Blood. Sparky cannot stand that, and years ago, it is said, that a group of bishops aligned with him to infiltrate the priesthood so that a situation, exactly as we see it today, would come about.
    Don’t be so surprised to realize that we are going down because of priests, who were ordained and “promoted” to bishop, are “leading” us, for sure. But, are leading us to perdition.
    The Alta Vendita. Read it and realize that we are in the middle of a mess that only Jesus Christ Himself can correct. How he chooses to do it will be what we observe over the next years to come. We are the victims of sparky’s plan, but, Christ will lead us out of this. Meanwhile I pray for the good priests, who took vows with the intention of being holy men, with only hearts on fire for the Lord; not to undermine His Holy Church.

  10. Christopher Altieri has written a condemning, but totally accurate article on the leadership of the Catholic Church.If it were 500 years ago, I’m sure the Church Hierarchy would have him burned at the stake.The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.Because of this, it is illogical to expect the Hierarchy to make any meaningful changes in how the Church is run.The foxes will continue to run the hen house until some day they will have wonder why there are no chickens left.

  11. We are all victims of Satan and the sin of Adam. The Church is the Body of Christ and must undergo all that Jesus did including being buried in order to rise in glory. Let us pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth.

  12. Ah yes, Altieri’s evidence of “extensive collaboration,” per his own link:

    “Sources in Rome and Washington, DC told CNA”…
    “Senior chancery officials in Washington described…”
    “Sources familiar with the behind-the-scenes discussions in Baltimore told CNA…”
    “Several bishops in Baltimore told CNA that Cupich appeared…”

    Does anyone see a pattern with this crack-shoot reporting? Who are they, and why should we take their word? It seems as if the typical modus operandi is to take a position, and work backwards to justify it. If someone agrees with you, that’s ‘extensive reporting.’ Anything to stoke anger and division I guess!

  13. Since it is the Holy Father who appoints bishops, who moves them from diocese to diocese, accepts their resignation, it seems to me they answer to him. As with the popes, there is a difference between their offices and those who occupy it. While we may not like the way a particular pope does things, as Catholics we believe that as the Vicar of Christ on earth, it is Jesus to whom he answers, not the bishops or the laity. Like or not, Pope Francis has the keys to the kingdom of God and the power to bind and to loose.

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