• Sara Larson

And That's a Wrap - Updates on the USCCB Meeting Day 3

Updated: Jun 14, 2019

It was a big day at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops General Assembly, with final votes (and much discussion) on several major initiatives to address the abuse and leadership crisis in our Church.

I need a bit more time to process the meeting as a whole and formulate my thoughts about what this means for the Church going forward, but here’s a quick compilation of today’s Facebook posts to at least clue you in to what happened.

(If you have not seen my summaries of the first two days of the meeting, please start here: In Case You Missed It - My Updates on the USCCB Meeting Day 1 and What Did The Bishops Do Today? Updates from Day 2 of the USCCB Meeting.)

Protocol for Restricting Retired Bishops

Good morning friends! The bishops are back in session. We begin with morning prayer, then jump right into the meat of things.

The first order of business is to pass the "Protocol Regarding Available Non-Penal Restrictions on Bishops." This is basically a menu of options that are available to a bishop who wants to somehow restrict the ministry of a retired bishop in his diocese. (There are quite a few bishops who are trying to figure this out in their own local area.)

These are not technically penalties (that's reserved for the Holy See), just actions a bishop can take to "respond for the good of souls and the unity of the Church."

This one is pretty simple - No debate, just a quick affirmative vote. Done.

Vote On Acknowledging Our Episcopal Commitments

Next: Do the members approve "Acknowledging Our Episcopal Commitments?" This is a "moral" (not legal) document outlining the bishops' commitments - An attempt to correct the problem that bishops were not explicitly included in the 2002 Dallas Charter.

Bishop Shawn McKnight made a powerful speech here on the essential role of the laity - More on that later, but man, this guy gets it.

Motion passes with almost 100% support.

Vote on Implementation of Vos Estis

Next action item: "Do the members approve the Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundi Concerning Bishops and their Equivalents?" This is the meat of the matter - Setting up procedures for how accusations against bishops will be handled.

Lots of technical conversation here and interesting debate. I'll post some highlights later, but there was quite a bit of talk about the role of laity, timelines, auditing, and more. There are a few bishops fighting hard to make these procedures better and more accountable, with some limited success.

The measure passed overwhelmingly (218 to 1).

They're taking a break now, so I can finally get off the couch and eat some breakfast!

Other Votes

Two final action items:

  • Does the body of Bishops approve the revised passage on the death penalty for the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults, with subsequent recognitio from the Holy See?

  • Does the body of Bishops approve that those bishops who are voting remotely in Rome be counted for constituting a quorum at the November 2019 Plenary Assembly?

Both pass easily with no debate, and the session wraps up ahead of schedule.

This is the end of the public portion of the General Assembly. There is now a closed-door meeting of the Executive Committee, and a press conference will begin shortly as well. I'll watch the press conference, then I'll backtrack to share some more details about the earlier discussions.

Bishop Biegler

When Steven Biegler became bishop of Cheyenne in 2017, he initiated a diocesan investigation into his predecessor, Joseph Hart, and he did not allow Hart to attend his installation mass. In July 2018, Biegler announced that the allegations of abuse against Hart were found credible, and now Hart’s case is headed to adjudication in Rome.

Biegler has spoken several time during this meeting, trying to suggest improvements to some of the proposals. During discussion of the “Acknowledging our Episcopal Commitments” document, Biegler pointed out language that outlined the responsibility of bishops to investigate “misconduct by bishops, priests, and deacons” and asked if it could be expanded to mention misconduct that might be committed by other church personnel, beyond clergy. His suggestion was passed over, with the explanation that this commitment was implied elsewhere in the document.

My Favorite Bishop at the Moment

I have been following Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri since the November General Assembly, when he stood out as one of the few bishops speaking with a sense of passion and urgency about addressing abuse in the Church.

My respect grew when he wrote a column afterwards, offering an honest and critical take on what had happened at the meeting. (“I was disappointed that even the mild proposals up for consideration at the Baltimore meeting had to be pulled from a vote. It was a rather harsh reminder to me of what many lay people have been saying throughout our Diocese: We bishops are ineffectual in our attempts to address the problem of abuse of power by the hierarchy” and “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. Please, be men, not cowards, and come clean on your own!”) I’m sure Bishop McKnight is not perfect, but what he has been saying and doing in his diocese is the best example of real episcopal leadership that I have seen in the United States this year.

I have learned by now that the tone of the General Assembly is very muted, unemotional, and practical. There’s really no culture of inspiring speeches or impassioned pleas - but Bishop McKnight broke the mold today. In his quiet way, he spoke strongly about the need for lay involvement, quoting Church documents, Pope Francis, and the apostolic nuncio to make his case.

“We all feel the necessity when we go home of being able to tell our people, and especially our priests, that we have done everything we are able to do to respond to this crisis. I believe it should be mandatory that we involve laity in the investigation of any case of sexual abuse by a bishop or corruption or cover up involving the same. I believe we should do that because that’s the Catholic thing to do.” He then referenced the words of Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, which states that it is “not only the right but also the obligation of the laity to be involved in the most important matters facing the Church” and asked “Who can deny that this is the most important matter now of our generation?”

“Lay involvement is necessary to help bishops repair the broken relationship between them and their priests. Ever since the 2002 Charter, many priests feel the failure to include bishops in the Charter was like throwing the priests under the bus. Now that we have experience this horrible year of bad bishops, the laity too are rightly demanding that something must change.”

Ultimately, Bishop McKnight was speaking in support of the lay involvement outlined by the proposal and there’s really no action item to come from his speech, but still, it was good to hear a bishop stand up and speak with a little more vigor about this crisis and the way forward.

You can see the video of his speech at about minute 34:50 here. (If you watch a little bit before and after that, you'll also get a sense of the general tone of the meeting, in case you're interested.)

Bishop Strickland

Bishop Strickland spoke after Bishop McKnight’s speech and began by affirming McKnight’s words. He then addressed the elephant in the Rome - the scandal of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and his continued rise to power. Every bishop at the assembly must be aware that there are people sitting in the room that knew about what McCarrick was doing but said and did nothing to end it. Some of the other bishops (mostly the younger ones, but not only them) seem pretty mad about that, and I'm glad to see that they don't seem likely to let this go.

Strickland remind his brother bishops of the “two great bodies of the lay advisory, the National Advisory Council and the National Review Board” that spoke on Tuesday. He pointed out that both of those bodies expressed “a desire that a full reckoning of the McCarrick scandal be offered.” Strickland encouraged the Executive Committee of the USSCB to work with those lay bodies and to “pursue their strong recommendation and support the efforts to bring to light the McCarrick scandal issues as fully as possible.”

I Need Jesus

I still have a lot to share about the USCCB meeting today, but my spirit needs a break. I'm heading to Adoration to sit with my Lord.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Last Night’s Facebook Live

Here's the link to last night's Facebook Live. I actually thought this one was pretty good - This set of speakers brings some real expertise on these topics and all of them, especially Deacon Nojadera, offered some helpful thoughts and comments. I would encourage you to watch it yourself, but here's a few brief notes as well:

The moderator asked each of the gentlemen to answer an opening question about what they would say to Catholics that are disillusioned and struggling with their feelings about the abuse crisis. "How would you respond to the laity?"

All three were very respectful of the feelings of anger and betrayal that lay people might be feeling. Bishop Doherty even said, "I've felt them too... The roof really fell in on a lot of us newer bishops" just as it did on the lay people. (I know that skeptics believe "everyone knew" about McCarrick and Bransfield - But I actually do believe that a bunch of these younger bishops had no idea and are just as mad as the rest of us.)

Deacon Nojadera had some really beautiful things to say about the power of our feelings to help motivate us for action, saying that our emotion can be "a healthy and holy thing... Let the emotion give you strength to do something about it." (Like you've heard me say, over and over - anger is fuel.)

Personally, I posted three questions to the chat:

  • When can lay people expect an honest accounting of who knew what about McCarrick? How can we trust the actions being taken by this body when we know that some bishops knew about McCarrick's behavior and did nothing?

  • Will the USCCB implement the recommendations of the National Review Board to revise the Charter and implement a more thorough, independent audit? When can we expect this to happen?

  • If you want lay people to help, HOW can we do that? So many lay people want to be part of the solution, but we often don't know what to do and when we try to engage, the doors are often being shut in our faces.

Several people had asked questions about McCarrick, so those were addressed together. The moderator did read my third question out loud (around 12:45 in the video), although she changed my final phrase to "we are not so often invited in." :) Still, I was glad it was asked, and I appreciated Deacon Nojadera's response. Click here to listen for yourself.


Another note on the debate this morning: There were several amendments approved to modify the original text of the "Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundi Concerning Bishops" to make the involvement of laity more clear.

Ultimately, the procedures say that a bishop should appoint a person to receive any reports against a bishop at the same time as the metropolitan receives them. It's very clear that the bishops feel like their hands are tied by canon law and that they cannot make anything "required" that is not required in universal church law. Vos estis says that bishops "may" involve lay people in the process, and the USCCB now says "should," but will not say "must."

All of this also begs the question, *which* lay people are going to be involved? Being a member of the laity does not automatically make someone competent and independent, and I'm sure any bishop can find a "Yes Man (or Woman)" who won't go against anything he says. In fact, Bishop Deeley later mentioned, in passing, something about "if the person the metropolitan chooses is in his employ..." So, the lay person appointed could be an employee of the metropolitan. Will they be able to be truly independent in holding a bishop accountable for his responsibilities?

Wrapping Things Up

Much of the meeting this morning was spent discussing and clarifying details of the reporting system for bishops.

There were definitely bishops with objections to the proposals (or rather, a desire to make the procedures more accountable and transparent), but ultimately, the structure of the meeting just didn't allow for them to make any significant changes at this point.

Bishop Soto was trying to figure out how to create a new action item to require an independent audit of this whole system, but momentum was rolling on towards wrapping up the meeting, and it was clear that no one was planning on entertaining any new ideas at this point.

Props to Bishops Soto, Sample, Hebda, Rosazza, Kicanas, and Tyson, who stood up and spoke out.

Not With a Bang But a Whimper

It is perhaps fitting that the last commentary of the day, before the final vote, was another expression of frustration at the limitations of the USCCB response.

Bishop O'Connell (speaking for the first time this week) referenced the time that a bishop might have to wait after receiving a report, before being given permission by the Holy See to investigate it: "Thirty days is intolerable for a bishop to hold this information." If someone calls in a report and sees that nothing is being done for a month, "they will not blame Rome, they will blame the metropolitan."

And he's right, of course - These bishops know they will take the blame if the process does not proceed as quickly and as smoothly as the public would like. It sounds like some of them are frustrated by the ways that they could be limited by the response time of the Holy See, which has been notoriously slow to act in past cases. They are not in total control of the system either, but they will be those ones held to account for any delays.

In the end, Bishop Sample suggested that this issue could be brought up again at the November General Assembly, so the bishops can evaluate then if the response time has been problematic. (Although what they could do if it has been a challenge, I don't know.) Cardinal DiNardo agreed and Bishop O'Connell sat down.

And that my friends, was the end. After this, the bishops took a vote, passed the proposal, and adjourned until November.

Not with a bang, but a whimper.

Final Press Conference

Unfortunately, I don't have time tonight to share my notes from the final USCCB press conference. (I'm getting ready for the small group I'm facilitating in Milwaukee, for Catholics who want to talk about the abuse crisis in the context of prayer and community. It will be nice to get off the computer and talk to people in person for a change!)

The press conference is really interesting though, so you might like to watch it for yourself. I wish I could be in that room asking questions, but the reporters there didn't pull any punches either.


Alright, that’s a wrap for me. Time to get up and out into the real world again! It’s been a long three days, but I also learned a lot from watching this meeting. I hope you found my coverage helpful, but of course, please take it all with a grain of salt. I won’t claim to be unbiased, and I’m certainly not an expert about any of this. I’m just one person watching closely and sharing my observations.

Now that the meeting has ended, let’s all take some time to pray and reflect on what we can do next.


For I know well the plans I have in mind for you…

plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.

When you call me, and come and pray to me, I will listen to you.

When you look for me, you will find me.

- Jeremiah 29:11-14

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