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In Case You Missed It - My Updates on the USCCB Meeting Today

Updated: Jun 14, 2019

The United Stated Conference of Catholic Bishops began their General Assembly in Baltimore today, and I cleared my schedule so I could spend the day watching the live stream, taking notes, and posting updates on the In Spirit and Truth Facebook page. As you can probably tell by my careful and long-winded blog posts, putting out short, quick updates without a lot of time to think (or spellcheck!) is not my usual M.O. But I decided to give it a shot, since I know people are interested in what’s happening.


If you have a Facebook account, make sure you’ve liked and followed the Facebook page here. And maybe take a moment to share it on your own wall? One follower did that today and connected me with about 30 new people (of course, she’s kind-of a Catholic celebrity, but still).


For those of you who are not on Facebook, I thought you might like to see the content I put out today. Or maybe you have an account but would appreciate seeing everything I wrote in one place and in order.


(By the way, the blog website does now have a tab called “Facebook Feed,” which displays the most recent posts. So, you can always check that from time to time to see what I’ve been sharing.)


Please excuse any spelling or grammar mistakes and remember these were dashed off pretty quickly!


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Introduction


We begin with prayer, then preliminary formalities: welcoming new bishops, applause and thanks for retired bishops (maybe some of them shouldn't be applauded right now?), reading a message to the Holy Father (including words of thanks for the February summit and the new Muto Proprio), approval of minutes from November, and various welcomes and introductions.


Monsignor Walter Erbi, Reading a Letter from Archbishop Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio


Lots of interesting points:

  • Pierre explains the motivation of Pope Francis in asking the USCCB not to vote on their proposals for bishop accountability back in November: The Pope wanted the whole Church to work together. "Fast responses don’t always produce the best results" and “Prayer and time were necessary to adequately address” the issue.

  • A big emphasis on unity: Several metaphors that essentially ask the US bishops to slow down and wait for the rest of the Catholic world. The Church needs to move forward "without one group running ahead of the others and another lagging too far behind." Also, when a group is climbing a mountain, "what’s important is not who gets there first, but that all get there together... Sometimes the fastest people must wait for the slower" and the "Body of Bishops is stronger and more effective working together."

  • "Realities are more important than ideas" - We need to focus on "concrete solutions, rather than just expounding theological ideas."

You can read the full text of this letter here.


Colonel Anita Raines, Reporting on Behalf of the National Advisory Council

  • The NAC is a diverse group of about 50 members, primarily lay people, that review, discuss, and advise the bishops on agenda items before a USSCB meeting.

  • The NAC recommended two pro-active steps beyond what made it on the agenda this time: an official statement from the USCCB exhorting Pope Francis to release the results of the McCarrick investigation and a pastoral letter on chastity and sexual morality to offer a "theological response to the crisis, not just an administrative or punitive one."

  • Raines shared concerns about accountability to the Code of Conduct for Bishops that is being proposed: How can we ensure that all bishops sign on? How can the faithful hold the bishops to their commitments?

  • She made a strong assertion that lay people MUST be involved in accountability processes for bishops. It's not enough to say that bishops "may" engage lay experts. Without serious lay involvement, it's just "bishops investigating bishops!"

  • The responsibility of metropolitans needs to be made much more clear to ensure consistency around the country.

Ultimately, it sounds like the NAC offered a lot of feedback about the proposals for this agenda - some were accepted, others were not. Their primary concern seems to be making sure lay people are involved in all of these new processes.


Dr. Francesco Cesareo, Presenting for the National Review Board


A powerful presentation. I took several pages of notes, way more than I can include here. Suffice it to say, he uses polite language but was not beating around the bush in calling out the bishops for their leadership failures. I would recommend you read the complete text here.

  • Cesareo highlighted the work of some bishops responding in their own dioceses, but stated that "until there is a uniform response, we can’t be confident that the response to this crisis is adequate or sustainable over time."

  • He focused in particular on the need for serious revisions and improvements to the audit process and stated that "any delay in revising" it would "put children at risk." The audit process needs to be made more independent and more thorough. Almost all dioceses have easily passed for the last ten years, even those that we now know had serious problems; this is because right now "the bar is so low." We also need to develop a process for auditing any new standards for bishops - oversight is absolutely necessary.

  • An audit is only as good as the standards it is auditing. The charter needs immediate revision with updated and improved standards.

  • The National Review Board does not support the metropolitan model and is "uncomfortable" with a process reliant on bishops reviewing bishops. Lay involvement is key to restoring trust.

  • He also called out the bishops for their lack of action on the resolution raised at the November Assembly to ask the Holy See to release information about the McCarrick investigation. Strong words here: "It is more important to heal the rift with the people of God than any perceived divisions you might have with the Holy See." We must have an update on the status of this investigation.

The floor was open for questions after Cesareo's presentation. None were raised.


Bishop Robert Deeley presenting on "Protocol Regarding Available Non-Penal Restrictions on Bishops"


On the first morning of this meeting, bishops give presentations of the various action items that will be voted on later in the meeting. There's no debate at this point, just a brief explanation of what the action item means and time for questions of clarification. Bishops have the opportunity behind the scenes to think and talk more about the items and propose amendments, and then the proposals will be debated and voted upon on Thursday. (As far as I can see, the text of the proposals is not publicly available at this time, so I can only comment on what was spoken out loud at the meeting.)


First, Bishop Robert Deeley presented "Protocol Regarding Available Non-Penal Restrictions on Bishops." Basically, this is an assessment of what options are available for bishops to restrict retired bishops of their diocese who have been accused of abuse or cover up.


Keeping in mind that only the Pope is able to impose "penalties," what power does an individual bishop have over a retired bishop in his diocese? Clearly a question that some of these bishops are thinking about these days.


Cardinal Tobin presenting the Action Item "Acknowledging Our Episcopal Commitments"


This is a new "moral" document (rather than a legal one) about the obligations that bishops have in regard to abuse. Apparently, it has been in the works since last September, was proposed at the November General Assembly, and is finally up for a vote on Thursday.


I don't know the precise language used in the document (we'll have to wait to see that), but I know that it stirred up quite a few questions from the assembly. More on this to come…


Bishop Robert P. Deeley presenting the action item "Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundi Concerning Bishops"


These directives are about how Pope Francis' new laws for investigating and reporting abuse will be implemented in the United States. How will the role of the metropolitan bishop function? How will lay people be involved in the process? Who will pay for all of this?


The first real back-and-forth exchange came during the questions about this action item, when Cardinal Cupich insisted that the use of a lay review board should be explicitly included, so that the involvement of lay people is clearly required from the beginning, not just at the discretion of an individual bishop. Deeley argued that the committee didn't want to "limit the options" of the metropolitan in how he chooses to proceed.


Bishops Standing Up, Speaking Out


When we talk about "the bishops," we have to remember, they're not all the same. We've heard a lot about the worst ones recently. But there's also a small number of bishops that have been pretty vocal at the USCCB meeting - speaking honestly, asking questions, and pushing for clarity and change. Many of these same men were speaking up at the last meeting back in November, but they seem even more resolved this time around. It's encouraging to watch them try to push their brother bishops towards meaningful action.'


If your bishop is one of these men, tell him thank you for speaking up today. (Seriously, go find his email address on your diocesan website and write him a note right now. He needs your support.) I'm not saying any of them is perfect, but it's obvious that these bishops are trying.

  • Bishop McKnight of Jefferson City was pretty outspoken back in November, is speaking up again this time around, and most importantly, has been taking some pretty powerful action in his own diocese. He's one of the youngest bishops in the U.S., and if this is what the future of the episcopacy looks like, maybe there's some hope after all.

  • Cardinal O'Malley of Boston has been a leader on this issue for years, and he has done a lot of good work at the highest levels of the Church. Today, he pointed out that waiting for a month after an accusation to get permission from the Holy See to investigate (as is outlined in the Muto Proprio) just isn't going to cut it. He would like to urge the Holy See to respond more rapidly so that investigations are not delayed.

  • I don't know much about Bishop Kicanas of Las Cruces, but he's been asking important clarifying questions and also seems skeptical about having to wait for the Holy See's approval to begin an investigation. It sounds like bishops are well aware that the lay people are not going to be happy with long delays.

  • Bishop Wenski of Miami jumped into the conversation with a very strong statement about reporting accusations to the police: "If it’s criminal, isn’t the first response to say to the victim - 'this is a crime, call the authorities'? Why are we going to delay reporting a crime to authorities? Where we got into trouble before was that before reporting crimes, we wanted to take it upon ourselves to decide if there was a crime to report.” No one is disagreeing with what Wenski asserted, but he was the first one to just stand up and say it so strongly and clearly. Good for him.

  • Bishop McElroy of San Diego raised an objection to the language that says that a metropolitan bishop "should" involve lay people in the investigation of another bishop. He asked why the policy couldn't say "must" involve lay people. Unfortunately, there seems to be a reluctance on the part of some leaders to use more firm language like this, but McElroy even argued back a bit when he was (politely) shot down.

  • Bishop Barber of Oakland asked if a bishop should have to step aside while he is under investigation, just like any priest does. When his question wasn't answered the first time, he stood up and asked it again later, even more forcefully. (Remember, they're not supposed to be debating yet, just asking "questions for clarity," so all of the opinions have to be asserted in the form of a question.)

  • Bishop Biegler has shown remarkable courage as the new Bishop of Cheyenne, and you can tell he wants stronger action. He spoke about proposing an amendment that would require the entire report created by lay investigators, not just the metropolitan bishop's final assessment, to be sent to the Holy See,

  • Bishop Soto of Sacramento spoke several times, including suggesting the necessity of some kind of audit of this new system for reporting bishops. If we audit the implementation of the Dallas Charter, shouldn't we have an independent audit of the implementation of these new rules as well?


Frustrating Moment


The Chair of the National Review Board spoke very clearly this morning about the serious limitations of our current audit system, which he said sets the bar very low for compliance and needs to be immediately updated.


Later, when the audit was brought up in conversation, Cardinal Tobin brushed off the NRB's recommendation, saying “My own feeling is that the audit has been very successful in keeping us committed to what we are doing... I personally consider the audit to be very successful for us."


With all due respect, Cardinal Tobin, I'm going to listen to the expert on this one. Maybe you should too?


Bishop Robert Barron on Evangelizing the Religiously Unaffiliated


Highlight of the day so far: Bishop Barron trying to explain Reddit to 84-year-old Bishop Rosazza. It was hilarious and quite sweet.


Also, after a long, rather boring morning of debating church policies and procedures, Bishop Barron's presentation on evangelizing the religiously unaffiliated was a breath of fresh air. You could just see some bishops sit up a little straighter. Lots of questions and conversation and energy around this topic, and the first round of applause, when someone proposed that this committee give a presentation to the whole assembly in November.


Afternoon Agenda


After a lunch break, the bishops talked about immigration issues and faithful citizenship. Both important conversations that will, of course, be overshadowed by the abuse crisis.


One of the many sad things about this scandal is the way it distracts from all the other important work the Church is called to do in our society. The bishops' credibility is completely broken just when voices speaking out for compassion and justice are most needed in our country.


Press Conference


The last public event of the day was a press conference with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop Jose Gomez, Bishop Robert Deeley, and Bishop Michael Burbidge. Highlights:

  • Several questions raised the issue of the USCCB "recommending" rather than "requiring" certain actions from bishops. For example, if there's such a strong commitment to having lay involvement in these processes, why don't the documents require this? The response seems to go back to canon law and the limited power of the USCCB - They just don't feel like they have the authority to require actions of bishops, so everything is left as a recommendation.

  • Cardinal DiNardo was asked right away about the scandal in his own diocese and how that impacts his ability to lead on this issue. He brushed the question aside (after saying that he has "intense disagreements with what has been presented") and just affirmed that he is "very hopeful that much will be done this week." When the reporter broken in to ask again if he could still be a leader on this issue, DiNardo retorted, "Sure, I think that I can do this pretty well. I’ve been doing this for a while." (Not his best moment.)

  • Another reporter asked why people should have faith in the judgment of a treatment center when it says today that a priest is fit to return to ministry. (I assume that she was referencing the fact that the priest in the recent scandal in Texas was sent for treatment after an affair with an adult woman, then returned to ministry in another parish.) DiNardo replied with a brief comment about distinguishing offenses with adults from those with children, then defended his past record, saying "I think what I've done is good."

  • When asked about the Metropolitan model, Deeley highlighted the investigations into McCarrick and Bransfield, both of which proceeded according to this model; he claims, "it worked." DiNardo jumped in to say that he believes the metropolitan model will "prove very, very good."

And, that's all for today. The metropolitan archbishops met in the afternoon, but that session is not public, and then the day ends with Mass. Much more to come tomorrow!


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Update: You can now find the rest of my coverage of the USSCB Meeting here: What Did The Bishops Do Today? Updates from Day 2 of the USCCB Meeting and That's a Wrap - Updates on the USCCB Meeting Day 3.


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Remember, we believe in a God who changes hearts and works miracles of conversion every day.

With that in mind, let's pray for our bishops:


Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful

and enkindle in them the fire of your love.

Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.

And you shall renew the face of the earth.

.

O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit,

did instruct the hearts of the faithful,

grant us in the same Spirit to be truly wise

and ever to rejoice in His consolation.

Through Christ our Lord.


Amen.


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