NEW YORK — Cardinal Blase Cupich is firing back against claims that he sought to advance an alternative proposal for bishop accountability ahead of last week’s meeting in Baltimore, in place of the plan put forth by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
“The allegation is false,” the archbishop of Chicago told Crux on Sunday, in response to a Catholic News Agency (CNA) report Friday that he and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington collaborated on a separate proposal.
“At no time prior to the Baltimore meeting did the two of us collaborate in developing, nor even talk about, an alternative plan,” he said.
At the start of last week’s meeting of U.S. bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB, made the surprise announcement that the Vatican had requested a delay on voting until after a February summit in Rome where Pope Francis will convene the head of every bishops’ conference around the world to confront the global sex abuse crisis.
On the table was a proposal for new standards of conduct for bishops, as well as the establishment of a new lay commission that would investigate claims against bishops.
The two proposals were put forth in response to this summer’s revelations that former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick serially abused seminarians for decades while ascending the ranks of Church leadership, along with the findings of a Pennsylvania grand jury report in August chronicling seven decades of sexual abuse and cover-up.
While no votes were taken in Baltimore, the bishops continued in open discussion on both Tuesday and Wednesday in which another proposal emerged that would utilize an independent third-party agency, which would receive allegations, report them to civil authorities as applicable, and then inform both the chair of the lay dominated independent review board of the metropolitan bishop and the metropolitan.
In the case of an allegation against a metropolitan bishop, a third-party agency would report to the Review Board Chair of the senior suffragan bishop and the senior suffragan.
Cupich, who championed the proposal and submitted a written version of it to USCCB officials, said it “provides a response at a more local rather than national level, which is in keeping with the Church’s pastoral responsibilities to care for those who have been injured. It also gets rid of the opt-in provision [of the original USCCB proposal] by making the cooperation of the accused bishop obligatory.”
He also said that “from the outset, there is lay involvement and visibility,” that would serve as a simultaneous check on the metropolitan responsible for investigating the bishop in question.
While CNA had reported that Wuerl and Cupich collaborated on the proposal, which, according to their account, was known in Rome as the “Wuerl plan,” both Cupich and a representative for Wuerl deny that any such advance cooperation took place.
On Sunday, a spokesman for the archdiocese of Washington said that while Wuerl had discussed, in general terms, a similar proposal earlier this summer, nothing was ever formalized, presented, or discussed with anyone.
Both Wuerl and Cupich are members of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, whose prefect, Cardinal Marc Oullet, sent a letter to DiNardo last Sunday via the Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre, requesting the delay.
Cupich said that he, along with the other cardinals, were summoned to DiNardo’s hotel suite by USCCB General Secretary Monsignor Brian Bransfield on Monday morning ahead of the start of the general meeting, and they were informed of the delay. While all cardinals were invited to attend the meeting, only he and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, were present, he recalled.
Contrary to the CNA report, which alleges Wuerl and Cupich collaborated “for weeks and presented it to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops before the U.S. bishops’ conference assembly in Baltimore,” both Cupich and a spokesman for Wuerl insist that’s false.
The Wuerl spokesperson said his denial applies to the immediate period before the Baltimore meeting, adding “I have no idea” if Wuerl and Cupich had ever previously discussed possible responses to the abuse crisis.
Cupich told Crux that upon arrival in Baltimore, and hearing the news of the delay in voting, he consulted with numerous bishops on the plan that he eventually submitted.
“Archbishop [Salvatore] Cordileone [of San Francisco] helped in making my references to the Code of Canon Law more complete, and Archbishop [Charles] Chaput [of Philadelphia] provided support in conversation and by advocating from the floor for a Metropolitan plan,” he said. “Cardinal Wuerl was among the half dozen or so bishops I gave the draft to at the meeting, but he was the only bishop who did not offer any comment or suggestions.”
Cupich said that his proposal aims to deepen the responsibility of bishops so that allegations are not outsourced to a separate entity where “there is no provision for the pastoral ministry and care of the victims and those impacted by abuse or mishandling that is in keeping with Church life.”
“It has also become clear to me as I have reflected on the unfolding of events over the summer that we have a type of Metropolitan plan already in place, which is working. This is clear from the experience of the Archdiocese of New York in the Archbishop McCarrick case and the Archdiocese of Baltimore in the Bishop Bransfield case,” he continued.
“Both of these Archbishops showed that a plan that involved the Metropolitan was worth exploring,” he maintained.
At the conclusion of last week’s meeting, DiNardo said he would work with a taskforce to continue to consolidate ideas for both the Metropolitan proposal and the original proposal ahead of traveling to Rome for the February summit.
Cupich told Crux he had not spoken to Pope Francis nor any member of the Roman dicastries about the proposal put forward last week, he believed it is important for Catholics to know the current status of the proposed reform.
“While I do not know all the reasons for this decision to delay, I did note from the floor that we now have to tell our people where we stand and also assist the president of our conference as he prepares for this important meeting in February, and approach it in a spirit of synodality, that is walking together as a global Church with the successor of Peter to address an urgent need in the life of the Church,” said Cupich.
“This global response is also part of the urgency of the moment,” he added.
[This story has been updated after the spokesperson for Wuerl quoted above clarified the scope of his comment to Crux.]