Intense debate over sex-abuse scandal at U.S. bishops’ meeting

  • Written by CNA/EWTN News
  • Published in National
Photo: CNS/Bob Roller Photo: CNS/Bob Roller

BABALTIMORE – More than 20 bishops and cardinals offered passionate interventions during an open floor discussion on the sex-abuse crisis at the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Baltimore on Tuesday afternoon, November 13.

More bishops wanted to speak, but due to time constraints, their comments were reserved for the next morning.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, opened the discussions with the announcement that he had created a “deliberately small” task force, composed of himself and the former presidents of the USCCB.

The task force, which includes Cardinal DiNardo, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz and Archbishop Wilton Gregory, will work closely with the committees of the conference to examine instances of abuse and mishandling of abuse cases, and their work will culminate in a report presented at the next bishops’ meeting in June, Cardinal DiNardo said.

Afterward, Cardinal DiNardo opened the floor to any comments on the task force or the issue of the sex-abuse crisis at large.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, who has been barred from public ministry in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for the mishandling and cover-up of abuse cases involving minors and priests there, opened up the comments from the bishops, urging them to seek a greater collegiality amongst themselves as “brother bishops.”

He said the bishops should look to the example of St. Charles Borromeo, who said “we are not bishops alone or separate, we belong to a college and have a responsibility to it.”

He also encouraged bishops to pray more together and to consider establishing houses of prayer for priests and bishops, similar to one found in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Finally, he urged the bishops to “not allow outside influences to interfere with or attempt to break bonds of ecclesial union” that they have with each other.

Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, then gave a brief intervention, in which he suggested that bishops look to their priests to know how the faithful are reacting to the crisis and for any suggestions about possible solutions.

“It occurs to me that we might benefit from the wisdom of our brother priests — they are our closest collaborators — by tapping them in a more formal way,” he said.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco gave a long intervention in which he described what he has been hearing from Catholics in his area.

“We’ve heard how important it is to listen to our people; I’ve held listening sessions in my own archdiocese” regarding the abuse scandal, he said.

From this listening, Archbishop Cordileone said he has found that Catholics tend to fall into one of two camps regarding the abuse crisis. The first camp believes that the church is not talking about the real problem, which is the prevalence homosexuality among the clergy and its correlation with abuse, he said.

The second camp believes that the real problem is an all-male hierarchy, “because women would never have allowed this to happen,” and therefore women must be invited into all levels of the clergy.

Archbishop Cordileone, who clarified that he was merely reporting what he found among his people, said that both conclusions are overly simplistic, but neither is without some merit.

“We do sometimes act as a good old boys’ club,” he said, with problems of “cronyism, favoritism and cover-up.” He urged the bishops to find solutions to these “legitimate concerns” of Catholics in the second camp.

When considering the first camp, Archbishop Cordileone cautioned against the “overly simplistic” conclusion that homosexuality causes sexual abuse. That “obviously cannot be true” he said, as some priests with homosexual tendencies faithfully serve the church, while some heterosexual priests serve the church poorly.

Still, the concern “has some validity,” he said, pointing to a recently published study by Father D. Paul Sullins, a Catholic priest and retired sociology professor at The Catholic University of America. Father Sullins’ analysis found a rising trend in abuse, and argued that the evidence strongly suggests links between sexual abuse of minors and two factors: a disproportionate number of homosexual clergy, and the manifestation of a “homosexual subculture” in seminaries.

“The worst thing we could do is discredit this study so we can ignore or deny this reality,” Archbishop Cordileone said. “We have to lean into it. … To ignore it would be fleeing from the truth.”

The archbishop recommended further studies into the correlation between homosexuality and sexual abuse, one that avoids “quick and easy answers” and would attempt to find the root causes of this correlation.

Archbishop Cordileone’s was the first intervention met with applause from many bishops.

Another California bishop, Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, followed Archbishop Cordileone’s comments by asking about the status of the Vatican investigation into the accusations against former cardinal Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, and whether the bishops might “bring any respectful pressure to bear” to the Holy See on furthering the investigation.

Cardinal DiNardo responded, saying that he knew that the four dioceses in which Archbishop McCarrick had served had opened investigations, but he did not know of the status of a Vatican investigation on the matter.

In his intervention, Bishop Michael Burns of Guam asked about “meaningful constraints” on bishops accused of abuse, such as his predecessor Bishop Anthony S. Apuron, who was found guilty of sexual abuse of minors by a Vatican tribunal, but who has asked for an appeal.

“It’s been grating on the people of God” to have no concrete knowledge of the status of Bishop Apuron’s constraints, he said.

In his comments, Bishop Robert Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Illinois, said he agreed with an earlier suggestion of Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, that the remedy for the abuse crisis and accusations against bishops may already be found in the bishops’ charters and laws.

“People say the church is hung up on sex; this is evidence of that,” he said regarding the debate about the sex-abuse crisis. “We are capable of malfeasance in many other areas as well,” he said, and urged the bishops to consider more broadly the ways bishops may have gone wrong.

“I promised celibacy during [ordinations],” he added, “and I have to say I’m a little chagrined to be asked to sign something that says I will be accountable to certain standards.”

Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said in his intervention that he wished to see more fraternal correction among the bishops. He asked that bishops seek out the counsel of the bishops in their region if they are considering resigning, and also that bishops fraternally correct bishops in their region if they believe they should resign.

“I dream of a day when we as brothers are strong enough to say, ‘We think you should resign,’ even if he’s not ready to hear that,” he said. “Those are difficult conversations to have, nobody wants to have them, but they can be very important.”

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, a “small rural area” with a minority Catholic population, gave a notably strong intervention, in which he asked the bishops to consider how Archbishop McCarrick got to be in the positions that he was “if we really believed that what was going on was wrong.”

“It’s part of our deposit of faith that we believe homosexual activity is immoral,” he said. “How did he get promoted if we are all of one mind that this is wrong? Do we believe the doctrine of the church or not?”

Bishop Strickland said that while homosexual people are “children of God who deserve great care” and not personal condemnation, the church should teach clearly that homosexual actions are sinful, and help people move from sin to virtue.

“There’s a priest that travels around saying that he doesn’t [believe this teaching], and he’s well-promoted in various places,” Bishop Strickland said. “Can that be presented in our dioceses? That same-sex marriage is just fine and that the church may one day grow to understand that? That’s not what we teach.”

Bishop Strickland’s intervention was also followed by applause from numerous bishops.

Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane said he had heard from many concerned, faithful Catholic parents who want to encourage vocations in their children, but are growing impatient with a lack of answers on the abuse crisis from church leadership.

It is a concern the bishops should “take very seriously,” he said. “My feeling is, judging from their conversations, they’re running out of patience.”

Cardinal DiNardo then commented that he personally reads “thousands” of letters that the “people of God” have sent to the USCCB.

“If there’s one thing that nags at everyone, it’s the Archbishop McCarrick thing,” he said. “It seems to be ubiquitous. This is the one that I think has to be addressed, it’s just bad for our people.”

In the next intervention, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, said he seconded an earlier suggestion from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia that metropolitan bishops be given greater authority over the bishops in their region and the ability to conduct their own reviews and investigations.

“We have an existing structure, but it needs to be empowered,” he said. He also added that it should be clarified which accusations against bishops and clergy should be made public — those that are deemed credible, or those that have been further substantiated.

He added that the media “has been very negative” about the church following the crisis and has perpetuated a “myth” that nothing has changed since the 2002 Dallas Charter, and that the bishops must do a better job speaking out about what has already changed.

Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Nebraska, said in his intervention that the process for handling misconduct on the part of bishops must be made clear, transparent and expedient.

“How bishops are held accountable when there has been misconduct is not clear; it’s a process that happens sometimes, but it’s not timely, it’s not transparent,” he said.

He said that he was “very disappointed” by instructions from the Vatican to not hold votes on proposed changes, but said he saw it as an opportunity to be very clear with the Holy See about what needs to be done at the meetings in February.

Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan, gave a brief intervention in which he said he also favored the suggestions of strengthening the role of metropolitan bishops, and that it would likely be well-received in Rome.

Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio said in his intervention that while laypeople are angry, they want to help the church, and the bishops should accept their help.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, Florida, joked at the beginning of his comments that the bishops should be glad Donald Trump is president, otherwise the church would be receiving even more attention and “bad press” than it already has.

He urged the bishops not to get “distracted” by the media, and not to give in to the “industry and addiction” of outrage. Most people are not hung up on the sex-abuse crisis, he said.

“People are coming to church, they're praying, they’re sending their kids to catechism, the life of the church is moving on. If you’re not reading the blogs, if you’re not watching cable TV, this is not front and center for most of our people,” he said.

“We’ve done a lot, we have to tell our story better and not get played in the outrage business and get back to what we’re supposed to be doing as pastors,” he said, to applause from some bishops.

Bishop George Thomas of Las Vegas followed Wenski, and said that he had heard from people who were “rightfully” angry and disappointed that the Vatican had put a hold on the votes of the bishops’ conference on any proposals regarding sex abuse.

“The perception is that justice delayed is justice denied,” he said. He said he still hoped the conference would hold an “advisory vote that reflects the gravity of the issue at hand, the urgency of the matter, the depth of the breach of trust … [in order to] remove a cancer and help heal this wound that is affecting so deeply the living body of Christ.”

Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, where Archbishop McCarrick had once served, provided an update on the two investigations ongoing in his diocese, which he said are moving along but can become complicated when they overlap.

He said the diocese is “committed” to sharing the findings with the Holy See. He added that if Catholics’ trust in the credibility of their bishops was so easily shattered by the sex-abuse crisis, “what was there before? What was our credibility built on, that it could be so swept away?”

Cardinal William Levada, emeritus prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in his intervention that the Archbishop McCarrick situation might have been prevented if there were stronger investigations conducted when transferring bishops to different dioceses.

Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, reiterated in his interventions the “necessity” of the laity, who could serve as a “tremendous resource” in responding to the abuse crisis.

Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon, said the abuse crisis has caused him to “take a real good hard look at myself and how I’m living my life as a bishop in the church today,” spiritually and pastorally.

“Have we lost sight about what our mission is truly all about?” he said. “Our mission is to sanctify the world,” through shepherding and being close to the people.

“Reform begins with us individually,” he said.

Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, California, said in his intervention that he disagreed with all of the proposals to strengthen the role of the metropolitan bishops, an effort which he said would be perceived by lay Catholics as too little, too late.

“Maybe that moment has passed and we’ve missed our opportunity to do that,” he said. “In the current time, the transparency and independent review seems to be more on the minds of the faithful. We have to continue to pursue what has been proposed by the committee.”

All other interventions were reserved for Wednesday morning. Following an announcement about expected ice and snow, the bishops broke for the evening. Thursday is the final day for the fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which this year has focused almost exclusively on their response to the sex abuse crisis in the U.S. church.