BALTIMORE, Maryland — The one thing the bishops of the American Catholic Church had to do this week at their biennial gathering was to make it clear to a watching world that they take the sexual abuse crisis seriously. They needed to convey that they understand the anger and outrage caused by the alleged sexual misdeeds of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, and by the abysmal response of many other bishops to similar allegations. They needed to take action—any action—to ensure that something like the McCarrick case never happens again.
Somehow, they failed to do this.
Not only did they fail, but they managed to convey nothing so much as confusion and impotence in the face of an unimaginably ham-fisted intervention by none other than Pope Francis himself. No sooner had the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops convened Monday morning in the swanky ballroom of the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel, than conference president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo announced that he’d received a letter from the Holy See the day before. It instructed them to delay consideration of two proposals that would have formed the basis for a substantive response to the sexual abuse crisis: a new code of conduct for bishops and the creation of a lay commission to investigate bishops accused of misconduct.
The letter, which came from a powerful office in the Roman Curia called the Congregation for Bishops, explained that the Vatican wants the American bishops to wait until February, when Pope Francis will convene a synod about the sexual abuse crisis in Rome with the heads of bishops conferences from around the world. (It is a testament to Rome’s disconnection from the reality of events in the United States that the Holy See didn’t think this delay, announced in this way, would cause outrage and scandal among the laity in America.)
The bombshell visibly upset many of the gathered bishops, most of whom had no idea such a directive from Rome was coming. After the church’s “summer of shame”—McCarrick, the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the Viganò letter, reports of abuse and harassment in seminaries—approving these two measures, while by no means a cure-all, was supposed to be a turning point for the U.S. church hierarchy. It was more or less the entire purpose of the conference.
However, two American bishops in particular almost certainly must have known beforehand that an intervention from Rome was coming, because they were appointed by Francis to the Congregation for Bishops, which sent the letter. One is Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who stepped down as archbishop of Washington D.C. last month after the Pennsylvania grand jury report revealed his weak and inconsistent response to sexual abuse claims when he was bishop of Pittsburgh.
The other is Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, a Francis ally who made headlines in September when he told a reporter that the pope shouldn’t get distracted by the letter from former high-level Vatican official Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò claiming that Francis knew for years about McCarrick but did nothing. “He’s got to get on with other things, of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the church,” Cupich said. “We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.”
Immediately after DiNardo made the announcement, Cupich rose to inform his brother bishops, “It is clear the Holy See is taking the abuse crisis seriously.”
Except that it is not clear at all. Francis ignored requests from some U.S. prelates to cancel the synod on youth and instead hold a synod on bishops that addresses clergy sexual abuse and the accountability of bishops. Instead, Francis ordered the American bishops to attend a weeklong spiritual retreat in Chicago in January. He also refused DiNardo’s request for a papal representative to be sent to the conference in Baltimore. Perhaps Francis really is taking all this seriously, but he clearly doesn’t want the bishops to take action on their own.
In the end, the bishops failed even to pass a resolution urging the Vatican to release documentation related to the McCarrick investigation. After hemming and hawing over the resolution’s wording, a few bishops began to grumble that the resolution was unnecessary and inappropriate. Cupich questioned what it would even mean to release documents and later told his fellow bishops to just trust that Francis will do the right thing: “The successor of Peter has said he’s going to be truthful about this, and it seems to me we need to take his word on it.” The McCarrick resolution failed by a vote of 85 to 137.
Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth unwittingly summed up the entire conference when, complaining about the resolution, he said it “appears like we’re doing something when in fact we’re not.”
U.S. Bishops Are Products Of A Broken System
As a group, the American bishops of the Catholic Church are not very impressive. When they meet together in one place, as they did this week, you don’t get the sense of awe that their titles and vocations would suggest. After all, Catholics believe that cardinals and bishops—eminences and excellencies, as they’re formally called—are the actual successors to Christ’s apostles, imbued with supernatural faith and spiritual authority. They are the guardians of a deposit of faith that’s been handed down intact for 2,000 years and will survive until Jesus Christ returns and makes all things new.
So why is it that but for the collars and black suits, a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops might well be mistaken for a conference of insurance adjusters? Why do the assembled bishops, the vicars of Christ, come off like bland administrators or any other professional organization going about its banal and insular affairs—even in the face of something as grave as the sexual abuse crisis?
Part of it is institutional decay. Meeting an American bishop for the first time is like meeting a general for the first time. You think the man is a general because he is the best, perhaps because he has distinguished himself in battle. But you soon realize that in most cases he is a general simply because he has survived the system long enough.
Often, it’s the same with bishops. That’s not to say there are no good bishops (or generals), but simply that bishops are products of the system that produced them. In America, that system has been compromised for at least a half-century. Many current American bishops, now in their 60s and 70s, were shaped in their youth by the sexual revolution and a “culture of dissent” in the American church that rejected traditional moral teaching on issues like birth control, marriage, and homosexuality.
As a result, some bishops lost sight of moral truth, as well as an understanding of what they are and what their role is in relation to the laity. There’s a reason bishops refer to one another as “brothers” and that parishioners call their priests “father.” For Catholics, those terms reflect the theological reality that priests are living icons of Christ, true spiritual fathers to the faithful. It’s no wonder that McCarrick, in his depravity, referred to his favorite seminarians as “nephews” and told them to call him “Uncle Ted,” rejecting his role as father and shepherd for something vague, confused, and utterly false.
It’s also no wonder that so many bishops, including the pope, now want to quarantine the issue of sexual abuse of minors from the larger question of sexual infidelity in the priesthood, specifically, violations of celibacy with consenting adults. During the conference, there was some discussion of whether the proposed lay review board should examine claims of sexual offenses against minors as well as adults. Cupich was quick to urge that they be kept separate, saying that it’s a “different discipline,” and that, “In some of the cases with adults involving clerics, it could be consensual sex, anonymous, but also involve adult pornography. There’s a whole different set of circumstances.”
As a matter of policy, or the scope of duties for a lay review board, perhaps Cupich has a point that they should be kept separate. But Cupich and the other progressive-leaning bishops, who wield enormous power because of their closeness to Francis, have shown zero interest in confronting the problem of priests violating their vows of celibacy with consenting adults. Indeed, there is a clear divide between the bishops who think the crisis is rooted in the collapse of traditional morality and those who don’t see the connection at all.
At one point in the conference, Archbishop Emeritus Michael Sheehan, who dismissed dozens of priests for sexual misconduct when he became bishop of Santa Fe in 1993, said the crisis was rooted in three facts: 1) celibacy isn’t always easy, 2) the sexual revolution of the 1960s affected the entire world, including the church, and 3) after Vatican II, some priests and lay people “got wobbly” on faith and morals, gave up on prayer and confession, and some priests fell into the abuse of minors. As he was speaking, a number of other bishops were shaking their heads in disagreement.
Conservative Catholics Are Done Being Deferential
A growing number of conservative Catholics are now making noise about the crisis being rooted in the loss of traditional morality, although the role of rabble-rouser is new for many. Sixteen years ago, conservatives tended to be more deferential, reluctant to voice outrage at the church hierarchy for its failures. Liberal groups like Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) were front and center in 2002, when the sexual abuse crisis first broke. In some cases, advocacy groups coupled calls for accountability with calls for sweeping reforms that would open up the priesthood to women, married people, and homosexuals.
Although members of SNAP did protest during the conference in Baltimore, standing in small groups outside the hotel with signs and sometimes shouting at bishops as they came and went, conservatives formed the bulk of the opposition. On Tuesday, more than 800 people gathered at a large pavilion just a stone’s throw from the conference hotel for a rally dubbed “Silence Stops Now,” featuring a slate of conservative Catholic speakers like Matt Walsh and Alan Keyes. The rally was organized by Church Militant, a conservative Catholic media organization headed by the incendiary commentator Michael Voris, one of the most outspoken critics of Pope Francis and what Voris calls the “homosexual mafia” in the Vatican and the American hierarchy.
As far as rallies go, it was unusual. The attendees came from all over the country, some of them large families with young children, and they were about as orderly and respectful as the conference of bishops whose resignations they were demanding. To be sure, the rally itself featured fiery speeches and chanting and sign-waving, but it began with the Rosary at noon, paused again for a Chaplet of Divine Mercy at 3 p.m., and ended with a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.
The attendees were nearly unanimous in their disgust with the bishops. “They’re not listening to us,” said Christine Arndt, a woman in her fifties from Sterling, Illinois. “They’re destroying our faith like the political parties are destroying our country, and they’re supposed to be our shepherds.” Fr. Chris Walsh, a priest in northwest Philadelphia, drove down to attend the rally with a group of parishioners. “People aren’t shocked that some priests abused children,” he told me. “It’s the lack of honesty about what’s happening that shocks them.”
The only bishop who ventured out of the hotel to greet and pray with the rallygoers was Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who is widely known as a conservative cleric unafraid to speak plainly about sexual morality, abortion, and traditional marriage. Scores of attendees recognized him and asked for blessings and prayers (and selfies) as they filed past. Earlier in the day, Strickland had exhorted his brother bishops to remember that the church is above all about saving souls and converting people to holiness, and that in order to do that the bishops themselves must strive for holiness and speak clearly about sin.
I asked Strickland about that, and he told me the root of the sexual abuse crisis now facing the church is confusion about sin. “And where does that sin come from? It comes from not really deep down believing this is wrong, what a priest has done to abuse a little boy or a girl—or a teenager or an adult,” he said. “It’s pretending that it’s really not wrong.”
This article has been corrected with respect to the number of people present at the rally and the name of the prayer they prayed.