Four Things The Bishops Didn't Do (Reflections After The USCCB's November Meeting)
Updated: Nov 25, 2019
When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered in Baltimore two weeks ago, they did a lot. They approved updates to the Program of Priestly Formation, debated language about faithful citizenship, elected new leaders, and accepted a budget. They listened to inspiring presentations from Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, and the National Council of Catholic Women. They engaged in thoughtful dialogue about gun violence, evangelization, immigration, racism, and pro-life activities.
The bishops also addressed the abuse crisis in various ways: In his closing address as president, Cardinal DiNardo spoke about how he has been impacted by meeting with survivors and called for the Church to continue striving for justice. The presentation of the bishops’ Strategic Plan for 2021-24 included a priority to "Protect and Heal God's Children,” with specific emphasis on accountability, collaboration with laity, and accompaniment of survivors. The financial impact of the abuse crisis featured prominently in discussions about budget and finance. The bishops requested an update about the status of the Vatican McCarrick investigation; Cardinal Sean O’Malley was chosen to deliver this update based on his recent visit to Rome, and he assured his brother bishops that a comprehensive report would be coming soon. Information was presented about the new third-party reporting system that will be set up to handle allegations of abuse or mismanagement of abuse by bishops; the system should be ready to launch between March and May of 2020. And of course, before the bishops gathered in Baltimore, Bishop Michael Bransfield was told he was no longer invited to attend the meeting - a small but significant step for this body.
These steps are not nothing.
But they're also not enough.
I came into the November 2019 USCCB General Assembly with fairly low expectations. A year ago, I had watched the Fall 2018 meeting with a naive assumption that the bishops would act strongly and decisively in the face of the obvious crisis rocking the Catholic Church. Seeing the underwhelming outcome of that Assembly changed my perspective on what we can reasonably expect from the USCCB as a body today.
I approached the June 2019 General Assembly with a much more realistic view of what would happen. I found myself pleasantly surprised by some bishops who stood up and demanded better, but ultimately disappointed with the final outcomes of that meeting.
That said, at least the abuse crisis was front and center at those last two meetings - part of almost every conversation, spoken about extensively at the public sessions and the press conferences, undeniably on everyone’s minds.
This time, it’s quite clear that the USCCB is ready to move on. There are other topics that demand their attention, and it looks like the bishops have decided that setting up an accountability hotline has met their obligation to “deal with the abuse crisis.”
Now, that doesn’t mean that movement won’t still happen in individual dioceses. There has been positive progress in many dioceses throughout the United States, usually in response to a local scandal or under the leadership of a strong bishop who is willing to step up and move things forward. But unless things are organized and mandated in a more universal way, there will be still be dioceses lagging behind, resisting change, and mired in corruption. As National Review Board Chairman Francesco Cesareo noted in his address to the bishops back in June, “until there is a uniform response and mechanism across all dioceses, regardless of who the ordinary may be, we cannot be confident that the response to this dual crisis is adequate or sustainable over time.”
So, before we move on from the USCCB’s General Assembly, I wanted to highlight four things the bishops discussed previously but did NOT do when they had the opportunity:
The USCCB did not set up any process to evaluate and audit the effectiveness of the new reporting system for bishops. Remember back in June, when Bishop Jaime Soto tried to propose some kind of independent audit of the way allegations against bishops are handled? (Ok, maybe you don’t remember, but I do!) Ultimately, Soto was not able to get that proposal onto the agenda before the last meeting came to a close. And this time? Not a whisper of any kind of audit or independent review.
Back in June, there was also a conversation about the possibility of long delays between when a metropolitan receives a complaint against a fellow bishop and when he is given permission by the Vatican to begin investigating. Bishop O’Connell and Bishop Sample seemed particularly concerned about this possibility, and Cardinal DiNardo agreed that the time frame should be discussed and evaluated at the next meeting - that is, at this November meeting. Yet not a word was spoken on the subject this time around.
In his address last June, Francesco Cesareo offered strong words for the bishops about the limitations of the Dallas Charter and the weaknesses of the current diocesan audit system. “Any delay in revising the Charter or implementing an enhanced audit would not only put children at risk,” he asserted, “but could signal a step backward in the Church’s efforts. Specifically, the audit should be more thorough and independent, and the Charter should be revised immediately to explicitly include bishops and demand for greater accountability.” Given this strong recommendation from the board that is appointed by the bishops to advise on these matters, one would think immediate action would be required. But I heard no discussion about these recommendations after Cesareo presented them, and they were not even mentioned by the bishops this November.
Pope Francis’s new regulations for handling allegations of abuse specifically include “sexual acts… with a vulnerable person,” as well “forcing someone, by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts.” In other words, bishops are specifically required by Vos Estis to treat a priest’s sexual activity with a vulnerable person or with someone under his authority as a serious violation requiring investigation and consequences. When I asked a question about this on the Facebook Live event with bishops last June, Bishop Wack said that he hoped the assembly would be addressing this, because “anytime a cleric has a relationship with someone outside of the vow of celibacy, that's an abuse. It's an abuse of power.” However, no one brought up abuse of adults at the meetings last June or this November. Not a word.
Obviously, there’s a lot more the bishops did not do at their General Assembly this November. However, the items above are a few things I thought might maybe, just maybe, gain some traction with the USCCB.
I guess I was wrong.
Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, lead your people today. We need you.
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