What To Expect from the USCCB Meeting This Week
In case you haven’t heard, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will be gathering in Baltimore this week for their Fall General Assembly. This is one of the two times per year that all of the bishops from throughout the United States meet; their last General Assembly took place in June 2019. (If you want to review what happened then, please check out my coverage of that event here.)
I have had these days marked on my calendar for months, and I cleared my schedule to make sure I can watch the livestream during all three days of public sessions. I’ll be posting live updates on the In Spirit and Truth Facebook page (which also appears on the website here, if you're not on Facebook), then compiling them for an end-of-day blog post each evening. So, stay tuned for plenty of content over the next three days!
While the November 2018 and June 2019 General Assemblies focused primarily on responding to the abuse crisis, the agenda for this meeting indicates that the USCCB is now pivoting to focus more broadly on other issues in the Church. This is what I expected, and I know that there are plenty of important priorities to discuss. However, this is also why it’s so important that we continue to draw attention to the issue of sexual abuse in our Church and advocate for concrete changes; if we don’t keep talking about it, any progress on reform is likely to lose steam and get lost in the shuffle.
I will be watching the entire livestream, including any press conferences and social media events, but my particular focus will be reporting news related to the twin crises of abuse and leadership failures in the Church. Here are a few things I’ll be watching for:
Who’s in the Room
In case you had not heard, disgraced bishop Michael Bransfield was publicly disinvited to participate in this meeting. To my knowledge, this is the first time that the USCCB’s president has used his authority to exclude a fellow bishop from the meeting. (This action was raised as a possibility at the June 2019 Assembly in the discussion of “non-penal actions” that could be taken against fellow bishops.)
This is a small but positive step. However, anyone who is following this crisis knows that there are many other bishops who really shouldn’t be participating in decisions about sexual abuse and bishop accountability. At the last General Assembly, I noticed that these disgraced bishops tended not to speak in the public sessions, and they seemed to be seated in sections of the room that never showed up on camera (a smart move by whomever arranged the seating chart). Fortunately, Bishop Malone of Buffalo will be on his ad limina visit to Rome (although arrangements have been made for those absent bishops to vote in the election of new officers). Perhaps meeting organizers are relieved they won’t have to deal with the scandal that could be caused by his presence, but what about bishops emeriti like Bishop Hart of Wyoming, Bishop Finn of Missouri, or Cardinal Mahony of California? Will they be attending? Even if we don’t see them speaking on camera, are they still talking with their fellow bishops behind closed doors? Do they still have influence on the rest of the assembly?
Report on Bishop Accountability
The most important agenda item related to the abuse crisis is a progress report on the third-party system for reporting bishops that was approved for development at the June meeting. This system is set to launch in May 2020, so I don’t think we will see any kind of vote this week. However, we will hopefully get more information about how this system will be structured - and what kind of accountability or lay oversight will be built into the system.
Do the Bishops Still Feel Pressure from Lay People to Act on the Crisis?
At the last two assemblies, bishops repeatedly referenced the demands of lay people for action on transparency, accountability, and reform. It was clear that many of the bishops were well aware that the rest of the Church in the United States was paying attention and expecting clear action; some expressed frustration at the assembly’s seeming inability to act more boldly and decisively. I will be interested to hear if bishops still reference this feeling of pressure from their people or if they sense that everyone has moved on and stopped paying attention.
Election of Officers
Cardinal DiNardo’s three-year term as president is coming to an end, and it is widely assumed (and mostly applauded) that current vice president Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles will be elected to replace him. However, the new vice president could be anyone from a slate of nine candidates (including my own Archbishop), and this election will tell us something about the direction of the USCCB in the coming years. In particular, I will be interested to learn more about the new vice president’s record in responding to abuse in his own diocese.
Also, I have come to understand that the highly structured environment of these General Assemblies does not leave much room for discussion, debate, or, most importantly, creative thinking and swift action. At the last meeting, when Bishop Soto tried to propose some kind of external audit of the third-party reporting system, it was clear that there was just no way for a new idea to make its way onto the agenda. From what I can tell, a huge amount of power lies in the hands of the Administrative Committee, who sets the agenda for upcoming meetings. So, who ends up becoming vice president and sitting on this committee matters a great deal.
Are We Still Talking About McCarrick?
At each of the last two General Assemblies, the Vatican investigation into Theodore McCarrick has been a bit of an elephant in the room. It’s apparent that the USCCB doesn’t feel they have any power to DO anything about this, but many of them seem to be unsettled by the lack of answers so far. In my opinion, it is clear that there will be bishops sitting in this meeting who knew about McCarrick for years and did nothing, it’s also clear that there are other bishops who are deeply disturbed by this reality and want the truth to be known. I have heard from multiple sources that officials expect the results of the McCarrick report to be released before the end of 2019, so we can probably expect that scandal to re-emerge in an ugly way at that point. In the meantime, will his name even be mentioned at this meeting?
So, those are a few things I’ll be watching for starting tomorrow. The schedule for each day of the meeting has not been posted yet, so I’m still unsure of the timing for everything, but I will keep you posted.
If you want to hear some other perspectives about what to expect from this meeting, I suggest these two articles:
If You Measure It, You Can Manage It How the Bishops Could Restore Public Confidence (from members of the well-respected Leadership Roundtable)
Also, if you want to support the work I am doing (and allow me to keep doing it), please consider donating to my Patreon page here. Thank you!
This is my favorite prayer, often on my lips these days when I don’t know what else to say. Will you pray it with me?
Come, Holy Spirit.
Come, Holy Spirit.
Come, Holy Spirit.