• Sara Larson

The USCCB is Back to Business as Usual (USCCB General Assembly Day 1)

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

Hello friends! It’s been a long day, but I’ve finally collected all of my coverage of the first day of the USCCB General Assembly. (If I post before midnight, it still counts as “by the end of the day,” right?) I have been posting on Facebook throughout the day, so this post is simply a compilation of those more immediate updates (with some typos and grammar errors fixed).


Getting Started

Good morning everyone! I'm settled in with my blanket and my computer, ready to see what unfolds in Baltimore today. The beginning of the meeting includes a lot of rather boring formalities, but I'm interested to hear what the Apostolic Nuncio has to say.

Stay tuned for updates as it happens!

Three Cheers for Bishop Boyea!

After prayer, welcomes, and other formalities, the bishops moved to approve the agenda for this meeting, and we got our first unexpected reference to the abuse crisis.

Bishop Boyea of Lansing, Michigan requested an item to be added to the agenda: an oral report on the status of the Vatican investigation of Theodore McCarrick - given by Cardinal DiNardo or another member of the body. This motion passed on a voice vote, and DiNardo said they would figure out the best place to add this on the agenda.

Thank you to Bishop Boyea for finding a way to make sure the McCarrick issue is not ignored at this meeting. I'm interested to see what is said in this report!

Follow JD

If you want much more immediate updates on everything happening at the meeting, I recommend following JD Flynn on Twitter (@jdflynn). He's posting every couple of minutes with lots of direct quotes. Super thorough and useful.

Words from the Nuncio

Next up was an address from Apostolic Nuncio Christophe Pierre. He spoke about many issues affecting the United States Church - immigration, racism, demographic changes, the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, etc. He made references to "many problems" and "the current crisis" in the context of other topics, but offered no direct consideration of sexual abuse in the Church. The complete text of his speech can be found online here.

Thoughts from the Outgoing President

Cardinal DiNardo gave his final address as president of the USCCB. Full text here.

He began with some stirring words about his visits to immigrant detention centers, a call for the Church to accompany migrants, and a message of support for pro-life pregnancy centers and all women facing unplanned pregnancies.

His next words were about the abuse crisis and specifically survivors of clerical abuse. (Quotations throughout the assembly will be my best attempt to capture words, but I can't claim complete precision.)

"My life is also forever changed by meeting with survivors of abuse. When too many within the Church sought to keep them in the darkness, they refused to be relegated to the shadows. Their witness brought help to countless fellow survivors. It fueled the resolve of my brother bishops to respond with pastoral support and prevention programs."

DiNardo listed some positive changes made (background checks and the like), referenced Pope Francis's new rules, and said that the measures approved in June for bishop accountability are a beginning, but just a beginning. "We must strive for justice for the victims of sexual abuse."

He continued with a brief reflection on the problem of clericalism, saying that "we cannot permit anyone who is ordained to act as if he is lord and master over others." An ordained minister must be "a humble servant to all."

National Advisory Council Report

This report was given by Colonel Anita Raines, chair of the National Advisory Council. The NAC is a group of about 50 people, mostly laity, from all over the country who meet to analyze and offer feedback on the agenda for upcoming USCCB meetings.

Colonel Raines began with a statement on the importance of having laity engaged in the mission of the Church, then reports on the NAC's support for various agenda items.

Of note: She mentioned that the NAC met with representatives of the Office of Child and Youth Protection and that everyone is awaiting the Vatican report on the McCarrick investigation. "This has been a tremendously difficult year for our survivors and their families. For our clergy and the lay faithful." We need to be focused on healing the Body of Christ and restoring trust.

Is This A Priority?

Archbishop Vigneron explained the Revised Strategic Priorities for the 2021-24 USCCB Strategic Plan. One of these strategic priorities is "Protect and Heal God's Children: Restore Integrity, Foster Virtue."

There have been some interesting changes from the draft language that was approved in June. Note that the aim to "create and maintain safe environments" has been changed to "maintain and strengthen safe environments" to "more accurately capture" past and ongoing efforts. I'll leave that to you to reflect on.

While strategic plans might feel rather cold and bureaucratic, they do direct attention and funds in the coming years, so it is significant that this is on the list of top priorities. We'll see what that actually means in practical terms.

Priorities pass with a nearly unanimous vote.

Money Matters

Now, on to money: Archbishop Dennis Schnurr presented the annual budget proposal, as well as Action Item #3 - "Do the diocesan and eparchial bishops accept the recommendation of the Committee on Budget and Finance for approval of a 3% increase in the diocesan assessment for 2021 to $12,473,425?"

The abuse crisis came up several times in this conversation. Schnurr outlined increased costs incurred by the USCCB in recent years. He said that initial predictions that the abuse crisis would have impacts on the 2018-19 and 2019-20 budget years have been expanded to include a significant impact on the 2020-21 budget year.

Unbudgeted expenses (to the USCCB specifically, not individual dioceses) related to the abuse crisis since fall of 2018 total 2.15 million dollars. These costs come from fees for professional consultants, legal fees, and "conventions and meetings." These extra costs were covered by the 5 million dollar general reserve fund.

This proposed action item raises the assessment that dioceses pay to fund the USCCB by 3%. (The assessment was not raised last year, in awareness of the heavy impact of the abuse crisis on diocesan budgets.)

Archbishop Chaput raised an objection to this increased assessment, saying that his diocese of Philadelphia has "huge costs" related to the abuse crisis and cannot keep increasing its payment to the USCCB. In contrast, Cardinal Cupich of Chicago mentioned that the proposed increase would not even keep up with the rate of inflation.

Motion needed a 2/3 majority and did NOT pass. This is the first time I've seen that.

Lesson learned: Yes, money talks.

Note: The vote was close enough that the votes of absent bishops could still end up giving this measure the ⅔ majority needed. Absent bishops will be polled by mail.

Lunch Break and Press Conference

The morning session wrapped up with an interesting presentation and discussion on gun violence in our country, followed by the Angelus and a meal prayer before the lunch break.

I thought I was going to get a break, but they moved right into a mid-day press conference. The press conference included questions about tensions with Pope Francis and within the Conference, spending cuts that might be needed, action on gun violence, the Amazon synod, global climate change, and faithful citizenship.

DiNardo answered a question about his tenure as president, saying that "it's been a rough ride... but we managed to do the rough ride."

Most pertinent question to our topic here: Ed Condon of Catholic News Agency brought up the dis-invitation of Bishop Bransfield to this meeting and asked whether there was a possibility of sharing which other bishops might have been dis-invited, as an act of transparency. DiNardo explained the protocol (recommendation brought to him by the current bishop of a diocese, president taking the action after consulting with the Administrative Committee) but said "Bransfield was the first... I don't know of any other right now."

Things Get Interesting

A big chunk of time after lunch was spent on Bishop Robert Barron's presentation on evangelizing the religiously unaffiliated, on behalf of the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis. The bishops definitely woke up for this one! There was a really dynamic dialogue after the presentation - the first time it felt like a real conversation was happening on the floor.

I took a bunch of notes, because this is a huge interest of mine (remember, this time last year I was giving my whole heart to an evangelizing parish ministry), but I won't share all of that with you here. Three things to note for our topic though:

First, Bishop Barron began by saying that he thinks reaching the religiously unaffiliated is the "number 2" issue facing the Church today - after the abuse crisis. I appreciate him continuing to acknowledge the ongoing crisis, even in a presentation on a different subject.

Second, I've been paying attention to how lay people are being engaged by bishops in this meeting. The National Advisory Council presentation was given by a laywoman, but her role was simply to report, not to be an active participant in a dialogue with the whole body. However, Bishop Barron invited three of his collaborators - two laymen and one laywoman - to join him on the stage to respond to questions, and he encourage the bishops to direct their inquiries to these lay people, rather than to him. He deflected questions towards them throughout the conversation, treating them as experts on the subject. This was a nice breath of fresh air.

Third, Bishop Barron continues to reference the reasons people give for leaving the Catholic Church. I know this list of reasons is based on solid research (I've seen the CARA surveys), but I just can't see how the abuse crisis never seems to come up on this list. I don't know what to make of this, but it feels important. I know so many people who have walked away from the Church precisely because of the leadership failures surrounding this crisis. I hope the bishops know those people exist and are thinking about them too.

Addressing that Elephant in the Room

Most important part of the day: Cardinal Sean O'Malley gave a brief update about the status of the McCarrick investigation, as suggested by Bishop Boyea this morning. Precision matters here, so I went back to the video to transcribe his comments exactly:

“I just arrived from Rome with Region 1 from our ad limina visit… We were not afraid to bring up the question of the report on Theodore McCarrick, and we insisted on the importance of publishing a response to the many serious questions about this case. We made it clear to [Vatican Secretary of State] Cardinal Parolin and the leadership of the Curia that the priests and the people of our country are anxious to hear the Holy See’s explanation of this tragic situation, how he could become an archbishop and cardinal, who knew what and when. The long wait has resulted in great frustration on the part of bishops and our people, and indeed in a very harsh and even cynical interpretation of the seeming silence.

Cardinal Parolin has assured us that the intention was to publish the response before this November meeting, but the investigation has involved various dioceses in the United States as well as many offices and dicasteries of the Roman Curia. And a much larger corpus of information has emerged than was anticipated. There is a desire and a commitment to be thorough and transparent so as to answer people’s questions and not simply create more questions.

Last week, they showed me the hefty document that had been assembled [O’Malley demonstrated the size by holding his thumb and forefinger several inches apart]. It is now being translated into Italian and will be presented to the Holy Father. The intention is to publish the Holy See’s response soon - if not before Christmas, soon in the new year.”

Note the implication that the tentacles of the McCarrick scandal are more far-reaching than was anticipated. I'm glad Cardinal O'Malley is emphasizing the question of "who knew what when." I hope we get answers to that.

That’s All Folks

The day wrapped up with an extensive presentation by Archbishop Naumann of the Committee on Pro-life Activities on "the initiative of prayer, service, and witness for life."

The concluding press conference was interesting, but there were no questions related to the abuse crisis.

That's all for today! I'll be back to the livestream tomorrow morning - starting with the election of the new president and vice president.

Let me know if you have any questions about anything that transpired today. See you tomorrow!


Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep,

That awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in His peace.

Update: Click here to read my summary of Day 2!

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