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The Bishops’ Meeting: From Bad to Worse

In August, a Pennsylvania grand jury disclosed credible allegations of sexual abuse by over 300 priests, with thousands of victims.  A joint Boston Globe/Philadelphia Inquirer investigation, published Nov. 3, found more than 130 U.S. bishops –  or nearly one-third of those still living – have been accused of failing to properly respond to sexual misconduct allegations.

The bishops’ response was much-anticipated. But, at their Nov. 12-14 meeting, they failed to adopt reforms addressing the sex abuse crisis

“Bottom line – Catholics have lost trust in their leaders,” declared Tom Gjelten, who covers religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, after the meeting.

“Too many are losing faith, losing trust, losing hope – we are, in so many ways, losing our religion,” wrote Deacon Greg Kandra.

“This loss of trust in the leadership of the Church makes this the most significant crisis confronting ting the church since the Reformation,” noted Madeline E. Lacovara in the magazine, America.

As usual, important issues were misstated or neglected by the U.S. mainstream media in reporting on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) meeting.

The decision to forbid the bishops to adopt any reforms was made by Pope Francis, not “the Vatican” or “the Church” as reported almost unanimously by the U.S. mainstream media.  (Kudos to Gjelten for getting it right.) The reason given was that the pope had already called for a Vatican meeting in February on the same issue.

This order from the pope demonstrates why “the largest decline among major U.S. religious groups” has occurred in the Catholic Church according to an August 2016 PRRI survey.  “We are the only U.S. denomination controlled by a foreign government, a society exclusively all male, (officially) without spouses and children, who were promoted to their current positions precisely because they place the institution before all else,” I wrote.

“About 40 reporters” attended the USCCB meeting in November 2017. “This year, the number jumped to 160, but many of these reporters left during the first day when it was announced at the meeting’s opening that the bishops would not be voting on responses to sexual abuse as planned.”

So here’s what most of the secular media missed.

In reality, neither the bishops’ proposals, nor the meeting Pope Francis has scheduled for February 21-24, will result in the reforms most needed to protect children. According the survivors of clerical sex abuse and their advocates, the following steps are essential: the bishops and pope must report these crimes to civil authorities, make all Church records available to these authorities, stop obstructing legislation to reform the statutes of limitations on sex crimes, hold the bishops’ who cover-up these crimes accountable (including their resignations), as well as other steps.

Regardless that the above actions have never been sanctioned by Pope Francis, the American bishops could still “permanently and prominently post all names of proven, admitted and credibly accused clerics” and “review his own diocese’s abuse records, in case an old case has been overlooked or needs re-evaluation,” wrote David Clohessy, volunteer director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “Every bishop should fire … publicly expose, or denounce at least the worst enablers, those who ignored or hid abuse reports, those who knew of or suspected abuse but kept silent or acted deceitfully,” he continued.

Besides ignoring the experts, as further evidence that the bishops are not really serious about protecting children, three notorious “enablers” were present at their meeting: Bishops Robert Finn of Kansas City, James Timlin of Scranton and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.

Rather than being denounced, Mahony was invited as a guest speaker. He urged the assembly to “not allow outside influences to interfere with or attempt to break bonds of ecclesial union” that they have with each other.

“In the child sex abuse scandal that has shaken the Catholic Church, Mahony is a singular figure,” according to a 2013 article in the Los Angeles Times. “The archdiocese’s confidential personnel files, released this year as part of a massive settlement of civil lawsuits” provided a detailed account of how clergy abuse was handled by the cardinal, head of the archdiocese from 1985 to 2011. They “suggest a man who was troubled over abuse but more worried about scandal – and how it might derail the agenda he had for himself and his Church.”

Pope Francis allowed Finn to resign after he was convicted in 2012 for “criminally shielding a priest who was a threat to children.”  According to the famous victims’ advocate, Tom Doyle, “his failure, the extent of which cannot be understated” was his maltreatment of victims of clerical sex abuse.

“On August 14, 2018, a grand jury investigation into child sex abuse in the Pennsylvania Catholic Church revealed Timlin paid a family $75,000 to remain silent about a priest, Thomas Skotek, who raped a teenage girl, got her pregnant and arranged for her to get an abortion.”  Timlin wrote to the rapist: “I realize how upset you are. I share your grief. (…)Please be assured that I am most willing to do whatever I can do to help.” After a stay in a Catholic center for psychological evaluation, Skotek was assigned to another parish and continued his ministry until 2002.

The McCarrick Affair

The bishops’ lack of effective actions to stop the destruction of children’s lives can be contrasted with the prominence they gave to a serial predator of seminarians and young priests.

 “If there was one word that was echoed throughout the [last day of the meeting], it was: ‘McCarrick.’”

Theodore McCarrick, 88 and retired, “for the better part of three decades, rose through the ranks of the American Church, gaining power, prestige and influence.”

In June, the Archdiocese of New York announced that an allegation McCarrick had sexually abused a 16-year-old altar boy in 1971 was deemed “credible and substantiated” following an investigation.  In July, another survivor said he had been sexually abused by McCarrick when he was 11-years-old.

That was the last time any Catholic official gave more than lip service to McCarrick’s sexual abuse of boys as far as I know.

However, multiple reports were made that – not only did McCarrick sexually prey on seminarians and young priests – but also that this was well-known among his fellow clergy and prelates, even Popes Benedict XVI and Francis.  The article, “Cardinal McCarrick: Everybody Knew” by Rod Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative, dated June 20 was probably the first and most thorough.

Dreher wrote that the sociologist Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk who specialized in studying the sexual behavior of Catholic priests, wrote an open letter to Pope Benedict in 2008.  Sipe stated that “It has been widely known for several decades that Bishop/Archbishop now Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick took seminarians and young priests to a shore home in New Jersey, sites in New York, and other places and slept with some of them. He established a coterie of young seminarians and priests that he encouraged to call him ‘Uncle Ted.’”

Dreher continued: “Believe me when I tell you that a lot of people in the Church knew about Cardinal McCarrick’s sex life. How many of them have gone public with it? Not Cardinal McCarrick’s successors in Newark, Archbishop Myers and Cardinal Tobin who knew about at least two settlements with McCarrick’s victims. I find it impossible to believe that [New York] Cardinal Dolan, or McCarrick’s successors in Metuchen, Newark, and Washington (including Cardinals Wuerl and Tobin), knew nothing of Uncle Ted’s Gay Predation.”

By the end of July, Pope Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals but allowed him to remain an archbishop with the all income, benefits and honorifics that come with that title. The archbishop was also suspended from public ministry and ordered to live in a Kansas friary with no one responsible for verifying that the 88-year-old is, in fact, restricted by anything other than his age.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former papal ambassador to the United States, wrote an open letter published in August. He “names more than 30 public figures, mostly to denounce them. But at its heart are a small number of very serious allegations about Pope Francis’s treatment of Theodore McCarrick.” Vigano stated the pope knew he was a “serial predator” of seminarians, covered up for him and, therefore, should resign.

“But the letter also includes a screed against homosexuals,” thereby damaging Viganò’s motives and credibility.

Pope Francis had initially declined to authorize a Vatican investigation of McCarrick, as requested by USCCB president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo. But then the pope partially relented by allowing a “a thorough study of the entire documentation” in Vatican archives “in order to ascertain all the relevant facts.”  But the announcement didn’t state when, or if, these findings would ever be available to others.

On the second day of the bishops’ meeting, the outgoing and incoming chairpersons of the USCCB National Advisory Council delivered presentations of the council’s suggested reforms. Among them was an audit of U.S. seminaries to investigate “predatory homosexual behavior.” and a “full, independent” investigation into McCarrick.

On the same day, the head of the USCCB’s National Review Board, Dr. Francesco Cesareo, presented his group’s reform recommendations including a “full investigation” into McCarrick “and his rise to power within the Church despite decades of serially abusing seminarians and, at least in one case, a minor.”

On the last day of their meeting, Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing made a resolution that the USCCB “encourage” Pope Francis to “to release all the documentation that can be released consistent with canon and civil law regarding the misconduct of Archbishop McCarrick.” The resolution failed.

Now What?

“Over the last several months, attorneys general in 14 states and the District of Columbia announced probes and demanded documents from Catholic officials. Those efforts have been joined by a federal investigation out of Philadelphia that may become national in scope.”

“Will they get many prosecutions out of it? Probably not,” said Marci Hamilton, executive director of Child USA, a think tank dedicated to stopping child abuse. “In most circumstances, the statute of limitations has expired, or the evidence is circumstantial.”

She noted, however, that the attorneys general are likely to extract plenty of new information in their states and that the reports they generate, much like Pennsylvania’s, “will be good for painting a picture for the public to understand that this is a systemic problem. It’s a real positive step in the right direction.”

How many more Catholics will be “losing their religion” as a result?


5 Responses

  1. Among interesting items in article, how the press decamped after first day when Vatican quashed the agenda.
    And the bishops who had no shame but appeared at meeting!
    Sancta excreta! No shame, even.

    • Thank you for commenting. I agree. “No shame”!

  2. The ship is taking on a lot of water! Jack


    J. A. Dick Historical Theologian Leuven


    • Thank you for the astute, precise and concise observation.

  3. Women should declare a global Lysistrata-like BIRTH strike — that’ll make the bishops’ heads explode! Why should women risk their lives giving birth for a church that won’t stop raping kids once born? And if it’s OK for priests to force abortions on their victims, why should all other unhealthy women obey the abortion ban? It doesn’t matter whether women go through with a birth strike by either abstinence or contraception so long as they merely threaten to. The mere threat will flush out more revealing misogyny from the bishops. Children will never be safe from predator priests as long as their mothers are exploited by the same priests as disposable incubators.

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