What the US Bishops Said Today About the McCarrick Report
Today, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops began their fall General Assembly. I spent my afternoon watching and taking notes, particularly on discussion related to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. I have collected those notes below. If you want to get straight to the McCarrick Report, just scroll down past the preliminary information.
The USCCB usually meets twice a year, in November and June, but the June 2020 meeting was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. This fall's meeting is much-abbreviated and conducted in a virtual format. Only president Archbishop José Gomez, vice president Archbishop Allen Vigneron, and general secretary Monsignor Brian Bransfield are gathered in person (six feet apart, with plexiglass between them), while other bishops are participating virtually. It makes for a strange experience, but everything went fairly smoothly on the technical end, minus a few of the typical "Can you hear me?" or "Excuse me, you're still muted!" kind of things that we're all used to experiencing in Zoom meetings.
The meeting began with prayer, then the reading of a message to Pope Francis on behalf of the USCCB. The message highlighted key themes on the minds of the US bishops at this time: the Covid-19 pandemic, racial justice, political tensions. (Note that many of the presentations during the first part of this meeting were pre-recorded before the McCarrick Report was published, so they do not directly address these latest revelations.)
Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre began with recognizing the dark clouds facing the world and the Church (a global pandemic, throwaway culture, secularization, polarization, prejudice), but reminded the bishops that Jesus is with us in the midst of the storm. Pierre referenced Pope Francis's encyclical Fratelli Tutti, saying, "If we want to heal the world, we need to witness to Christ, the Good Samaritan... to witness to compassion and mercy." Pierre said that the Holy Father challenges us "to build fraternity through love," affirm the dignity of every human person, and enter into authentic dialogue with the wider culture.
Archbishop Gomez began his first address as president of the USCCB by briefly addressing the McCarrick Report and survivors of clergy sexual abuse, expressing "deep sorrow," and praying that they might find healing and hope. He said that the bishops must renew their "commitment to protecting children and vulnerable adults." The remainder of his address focused on the societal and spiritual effects of the pandemic, the wounds of our society, and the call to uphold the dignity of human life. "The Church needs to weep now with those who are weeping," he asserted, but it must also affirm that God has a beautiful plan for every human person and give people hope during this difficult time. Gomez called on the example of Blessed Michael McGivney, an American priest and founder of the Knights of Columbus, who was recently beatified as a model of holiness and social concern.
After announcing the results of elections for chairman of various USCCB committees, the next agenda item was a report from Deborah Amato, chair of the National Advisory Council. The NAC is a group of Catholics (sometimes referred to as "the Church in miniature") who meet for conversation about topics faced by the USCCB, to offer their feedback and ideas. This video presentation was filmed before the release of the McCarrick Report, so the NAC simply mentioned their sense of anticipation and their gratitude to the Holy Father for the upcoming report. The rest of the report focused on the NAC's conversations about racism, pandemic reponse, and domestic violence.
The next presentation was offered by Suzanne Healy, the new chair of the National Review Board, which is the lay body that the USCCB consults about matters related to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Healy is a therapist who spent 10 years serving as the Victims Assistance Coordinator in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and spoke first about how much she has learned from working with survivors.
The last presentation from the NRB was a scathing indictment of the bishops' lackluster and incomplete response to the abuse crisis, but today's was a pretty mild presentation (again, written before the release of the McCarrick Report.) Healy mentioned the positive ongoing efforts to prevent future abuse and promote healing for survivors. and told the bishops "you must never let up in your efforts."
The NRB is currently pursuing four main initiatives:
1. Recommending changes to the audit process to make it more comprehensive and more focused on identifying areas for improvement.
2. Evaluating the effectiveness of current safeguarding trainings for staff, volunteers, and children
3) Communicating the ways that the Church has improved and "made our nation safer"
4) Proving a toolkit of resources for building safer communities
Discussion of the McCarrick Report
Archbishop Gomez offered some brief opening remarks, then all bishops were welcome to "raise their hand" on the virtual platform to offer comments. What followed was not so much a conversation as a series of short speeches by various bishops.
I could offer plenty of my own opinions about these comments, but I would rather present the comments for you to evaluate for yourself. I have tried to highlight each bishop's key points below. Please note that the bishops' words are paraphrased or quoted to the best of my ability, but you'd have to watch the video yourself to confirm I have the words exactly right.
Archbishop José Gomez, Los Angeles
- The McCarrick Report brings us "face to face with the failures of the past" but gives us hope that we will learn from the lessons of the past. - My first thoughts are with the victim-survivors and their families. - We must help them heal and move forward, but we also must be vigilant. - "How are we to respond to the terrible truths found in the report?" Focus on the Holy Spirit to guide us to the root of the issues the Church is facing. - The tragic outcome is the result not of a single failure, but "multiple failures over years," "a culture of clericalism," and a failure to address abuse "with honesty and integrity." - "How might we rethink our relationships moving forward?" The McCarrick Report shows us the danger of relationships wrongly ordered. - We have a sense of hope because the statements coming from bishops show a common solidarity with survivors of abuse. Every bishop has pledged to protect and heal. - I am grateful for the leadership of Pope Francis in commissioning this report, for the pastoral response you have offered, and for the courage of survivors to help make the Church a safer and holier place. - "I believe we have already made important steps in addressing institutional failings." - We must take a path of "penance, purification, and reform."1. Recommending changes to the audit process to make it more comprehensive and focused on identifying areas for improvement (Sara's note: the NRB has been speaking
Bishop Donald Hanchon, Detroit
- The question on all of our minds is - How did this get so far??
- We read in the report that Bishop O'Connor brought specific concerns about McCarrick, but ultimately, those concerns were ignored. This shows us both the power of human sin and that we should take all concerns like this very seriously.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki, Springfield, Illinois
- Unfortunately, media reports have tried to paint Pope John Paul II as culpable. The executive summary "ignored critical facts," namely that important advisors assured John Paul that the matter had been reviewed. It is understandable that John Paul would listen to his advisors.
Bishop Michael Olson, Fort Worth
- We know that McCarrick gave money to many organizations and individuals. If we want to demonstrate our commitment to conversion, those who received money should be named, as they have in other reports. (Sara's note: I assume he's referring to the Bransfield report.)
- "We have to give an accounting to the faithful for this. They are asking for this."
Bishop David Ricken, Green Bay
- We need to recognize the personality of predators, who can be popular, successful, etc, and the methods of grooming they use.
- I recommend that we have professionals "assist us in being able to identify these traits" in priests and seminarians.
Bishop Mark Brennan, Wheeling-Charleston
- People are asking "How did he rise in the ranks?"
- We have to look at the way the candidates are vetted. The initial process is confidential for some good reasons, but once a determination is made, maybe that name should be made known publicly and give people a timeframe to comment. This might give us an opportunity to surface things, serious accusations could be investigated...
- If that mother [mentioned in the McCarrick Report, who wrote letters to many church leaders about her concerns] had been able to bring her concerns forward, "maybe we wouldn't have had a Bishop McCarrick."
- There are many ways that bishops have been chosen over the centuries. Modifying this "might be advisable."
Bishop Shawn McKnight, Jefferson City (one of my personal favorites on these issues)
- We as a Church need to be transparent. - Things need to change so that this kind of report would come naturally in this situation (as opposed to something where we need to push to make happen). - "The lay people understand that there will be problems in the future. What they are needing right now is confidence that there will be a process in place that when an accusation comes forward it will be treated" appropriately. - "It shouldn't depend on the power of the accused, but the legitimacy of the allegations." - We should use all our resources to confront these issues, and "many times that will be found in lay people who have skills" in these areas. I would like to see "further movement in our Church in terms of recognizing and using the skills of the laity." - We need a culture where we're not afraid to address these issues.
Bishop Emeritus Michael Pfeifer, San Angelo
- I'm concerned about "the impression of lay people," who "pick up more from the media than from the Church."
- "We have to say more as a conference about how we see this issue." We should have a statement from the conference about this issue, admitting the failures and the necessity of better training and dedication to holiness, plus "particular ways we're going to avoid this issue in the future." We shouldn't wait until next year to issue something.
- "Our people need much more direction from us. They're puzzled."
Bishop Joseph Strickland, Tyler
- We need to focus more on the sin. All the deadly sins are covered in this report.
- "As pastors, we need to acknowledge that we're all sinners and all called away from sin."
- "Turning a blind eye to sin" could the title of the report.
- "Even if for some, it was consenting activity..." (Sara's note: He was the only one with the gall to drop a victim-shaming implication like this.)
- We need to "underscore the immoral activity of McCarrick" - we still have a tendency to "turn a blind eye to many of these sins."
Bishop William Wack, Pensacola-Tallahassee
- The report highlights our need for accountability - and we need to be accountable to one another.
- There's a lack of brotherhood. "People knew, but no one confronted offenders directly."
- As a newer bishop, "I'm amazed at the autonomy we have." If there's a complaint about me, there's no one over my head to bring it to, except the Holy Father himself.
- We must pray, support, and correct a brother when we see someone who might be doing something wrong. "I'm committed to doing that. I hope you all do that for me."
Archbishop Bernard Hebda, St. Paul-Minneapolis (another of my favorites)
- The McCarrick Report gives us an opportunity to "think about adults who have been victims of abuse."
- People say that the Church has addressed the abuse of minors in many ways, but "adults don't get that same attention." The McCarrick Report gives us "the moment to speak about that."
- We should "take this opportunity to do some mature thinking about how it is we can address those survivors who were abused when they were adults."
- This is also a good moment to reach out to our priests and seminarians and "ask them to speak honestly about their experiences and what might prohibit someone from coming forward."
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Newark
- We need to recognize what HAS been done since 2018 - the Vatican Summit on the Protection of Minors, the new reporting process in Vos Estis.
- It would be "ungrateful and not responsible" for us not to recognize what has been done.
Archbishop William Lori, Baltimore
- In addition to the other important responses that have been suggested, I would mention the importance of each of us bishops committing ourselves to pray regularly in reparation, as well as to fasting and penitence each week.
Cardinal Blase Cupich, Chicago
- "The Holy Father has taken historic action" - the Vatican summit, legislation, and this document. This is a "watershed moment."
- We need to be "in unity" and "respecting collegiality" with Pope Francis.
- There would be no report if the victims did not have the courage to come forward in the first place.
- "We need to spend time with victims."
- There are many reasons victims did not come forward - "They thought they would not be listened to." "The more that we listen to victims and make public that we are listening, word will get out that we're on the side of victims."
Bishop Eduardo Nevares, Phoenix
- "Bishops need to support, visit with, and encourage their priests," who often feel ignored.
- Loneliness makes priests "fall into pornography and sexual sins."
(When the time designated for discussion of the McCarrick Report ran out, the USCCB moved on to other items like the 2021-2024 Strategic Plan and the Ad Hoc Committee on Racism. Only a little discussion on these before the meeting wrapped for the day.)
Press Conference Highlights
The meeting today ended with a press conference, featuring several bishops answering questions from members of the media through the video platform. It was Archbishop Gomez's first press conference in this role (and I don't think public speaking is necessarily one of his strengths), but it was fairly uneventful. A few key points:
- Gomez was asked "Can you guarantee that seminarians are being protected today?". He responded with some general statements about the McCarrick situation being a tragedy, followed by comments about how every diocese in the US has a victim assistance coordinator, seminarians are being educated about these issues, and "we will be very careful." Archbishop Broglio added that there are "many people to whom seminarians have recourse" and "they are very effectively protected."
- Anne Thompson of NBC asked if there would be any public statement from the USCCB about the McCarrick Report and whether any specific actions would be taken. Gomez referred her to the statement he released last week, but waffled about whether another might be coming. He said that the bishops would continue to analyze the report, consult with lay people, and then come up with specific practices. Pressed again about a statement, he said "Let me see, maybe. I'll talk to the bishops."
- Another reporter asked, "What assurances can you give to to the faihtful that the kind of actions that allowed McCarrick to rise through the hierarchy won't happen again?" Bishop Burbidge responded by mentioning the new reporting system for bishops and asserting that "our public discussion and talking about the issue helps." Bishop Fabre emphasized the role of the "competent and expert lay faithful," saying that he has "found it to be tremendously helpful to get their assistance and their expertise."
- One question referred back to Bishop Olson's inquiry about investigating McCarrick's financial dealings. Gomez replied by saying it was "just a suggestion" but "we'll take it into consideration."
- Finally, a reporter brought up the dozens of bishops who spoke up for the "character" of Archbishop Vigano after his bombshell accusations against Pope Francis in 2018. The reporter asked if there might be some kind of statement of "fraternal correction" of those who "sided with Vigano over Pope Francis.: Gomez replied hesitantly, "Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why people are making comments... So it’s not up to us to… We pray for one another."
... And that's a wrap for today. The bishops are back in open session tomorrow afternoon, so you'll hear from me more then!
Please join me in praying for our bishops, that they may be moved by the Holy Spirit to take meaningful action to address sexual abuse and abuse of power in our Church.
Come, Holy Spirit.
Come, Holy Spirit.
Come, Holy Spirit.