BALTIMORE — On what was expected to be a climatic close to the U.S. bishops’ gathering on Wednesday, the much-watched meeting ended without any immediate action on the Church’s response to clerical sexual abuse.
Instead, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the conference, concluded with a vow of “strongest possible actions at the earliest possible moment” in response to the crisis and a pledge of loyalty from the U.S. bishops to Pope Francis.
“I opened the meeting expressing some disappointment. I end it with hope,” said DiNardo, who was left to repackage the agenda news from the Vatican on Sunday that it was requesting a delay in planned voting on new standards for bishops’ accountability until after a summit with presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world in Rome Feb. 21-24.
DiNardo ended the three-day general assembly by saying they “are on course” to investigate former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, ease the process of reporting abuse or misconduct by bishops, and develop an independent and lay-led means of holding bishops accountable.
“I am sure that, under the leadership of Pope Francis, the conversation that the global Church will have in February will help us eradicate the evil of sexual abuse from our Church,” he said. “It will make our local efforts more global and the global perspective will help us here.”
Yet despite DiNardo’s confident final summation, what emerged throughout the final day of their bi-annual meeting was often confusion and frustration among the bishops.
If there was one word that was echoed throughout the day, it was: “McCarrick.”
Bishops repeatedly debated how to go about seeking answers into how the former cardinal-archbishop of Washington rose through the ranks of the Church hierarchy while at the same time serially abusing seminarians, and, at least in one case, a minor.
Their discussions exposed rifts among some U.S. bishops who sought to give credence to the claims of former papal representative to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who has accused Francis of knowing of McCarrick’s history of misconduct and even demanded his resignation — and other bishops who lamented the lack of unity in the U.S. Church in supporting the pope, particularly given the fact that several bishops’ conferences from around the world have done so.
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Bishop Michael Olson of Forth Worth, Texas delivered one of the most passionate speeches from the floor, wherein he both called out the USCCB for not formally disinviting McCarrick from attending its meetings and for not issuing formal support of Francis.
Immediately following his remarks, he told Crux, “We need to reaffirm the Petrine ministry of Pope Francis, and that Archbishop Viganò’s calls for his resignation are scandalous. Whatever the truth to Archbishop Viganò’s letter, what remains is that for him to call for Francis to abandon the papacy is scandalous. It harms Catholic unity.”
“We as brother bishops especially need to support Pope Francis as the successor of Peter,” he continued. “We need to help him carry the cross, and we need to help him be aware of the immensity of this problem, and our absolute requirement for us to address it.”
Bishop Liam Cary of Baker, Oregon also suggested a comprehensive study of the cover-up of abuse by bishops, similar to the John Jay report on the abuse of minors.
Cary reiterated Olson’s suggestion that the USCCB formally censure McCarrick.
“As a conference of American bishops, we have taken no official action to distance ourselves from the shameful behavior of one of our own,” he chided.
Other interventions, such as that of Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona and Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond, Virginia compared the present moment to the dissent of Catholic theologians, priests, and laity who opposed the Church’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae banning artificial birth control and urged full unity and reaffirmation of all of the teachings, as well as the leadership of the Church.
After more than a half-hour discussion in the afternoon, the bishops voted down a motion proposed by Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing wherein he sought to pass a resolution “to encourage” the Holy See to release documentation in the canon and civil law cases against McCarrick.
Much of the discussion centered around the fact that the Vatican had already released a communiqué last month pledging to do the same.
In his final statement, DiNardo said the bishops supported “the fair and timely completion of the various investigations,” and expressed gratitude for the Vatican’s pledge last month.
Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City told Crux that his greatest frustration from the meeting’s conclusion was the lack of headway in the McCarrick situation. He cited his own experience of hosting six listening sessions over a two-week period in his diocese, in which he said the McCarrick saga was the primary concern.
In an effort to bring the meeting full circle, DiNardo returned to the remarks of papal representative to the U.S., French Archbishop Christophe Pierre, who used his opening remarks on Monday to call the U.S. bishops to personal conversion.
“No system of governance or oversight, however excellent and necessary, suffices alone to make us, weak as we all are, able to live up to the high calling we have received in Christ,” DiNardo said.
Looking ahead to February, where he will represent the U.S. bishops in a gathering that will bring together the heads of every bishops’ conference from around the world, DiNardo said the USCCB would seek to consolidate proposals from this week ahead of that meeting.
At present, there are two proposals on how to move forward with new structures of bishops’ accountability, one that would be a single, national lay commission — which was the original proposal — and a new proposal that emerged during deliberations this week, that would rely on a national network of established review boards, overseen by their metropolitan bishops.
McKnight told Crux that given the outcome of this week’s meeting, there is now heightened “concern about whether or not the February meeting will be capable of providing what we need in the United States.”
He said that he supported Cardinal Blase Cupich’s proposal from Monday that the U.S. bishops meet in March following DiNardo’s return from Rome.
“We may need to take what they have to go even further or deeper here,” McKnight said.
Yet despite a week that ended far from his originally conceived plans, DiNardo concluded his remarks with optimism.
“We leave this place committed to taking the strongest possible actions at the earliest possible moment,” he said.
“We will do so in communion with the universal Church. Moving forward in concert with the church around the world will make the church in the United States stronger, and will make the global church stronger.”