By Michelle Powers
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ General Meeting began as it usually does, in prayer.
Bishops were solemn and serious, closing their eyes, asking God for wisdom in navigating what is being called the greatest test the American Catholic Church has ever faced, the current sex abuse crisis.
The priests come from all of the nation’s 196 Catholic dioceses and they thought they were arriving in Baltimore to vote on a code of conduct for bishops and a proposed lay investigative board to help put an end to clerical abuse, but that quickly changed with a last minute announcement.
“I need to open our time together with an important announcement,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the head of the USCCB began, “at the insistence of the Holy See we will not be voting on the two action items in our documentation regarding the abuse crisis, that is the standards of accountability for bishops and the special commission for receiving complaints against bishops.
Cardinal DiNardo said the Holy See informed him of the request late Sunday afternoon. The Vatican is insisting that the US bishops wait to vote until after the Pope’s February meeting focused of sex abuse.
Many bishops were unhappy with the announcement. Cardinal Blaise Cupich stood to say, “The Holy See is taking seriously the abuse crisis in the Church, seeing it as a watershed moment not just for the Church in this country, but around the world, in putting so much emphasis on the February meeting.”
Cardinal Cupich proposed that the bishops take a non-binding vote, in order to give a sense of where they stand ahead of that February meeting. He also suggested that the bishops hold a special meeting in March, to begin immediately enacting new protocols following the Vatican summit. “We need as a conference, as brother bishops, to take up this issue for the good of the Church in this country without delay. We can benefit from the discussions that happen in February and, in fact, may find some new insights we have not thought of. But we need to act soon, without delay.”
Since what has been dubbed the “Summer of Hell,” beginning in June when now ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was removed from ministry following accusations of abuse, the American Catholic Church has been engulfed with several state attorney general investigations, and even one issued by the federal government.
While Cardinal DiNardo made note that a majority of those cases occurred decades ago, he acknowledged that the pain continues each day, and this week will determine how Catholics will view their bishops. In his presidential address, DiNardo said, “Whether we will be remembered as guardians of the abused, or the abuser, will be determined by our actions beginning this week and in the months ahead.”
The bishops gathered on Monday also heard from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Pope’s representative to the United States, who pushed for collaboration with the laity to stop abuse. “Our Holy Father has spoken of the ills of clericalism since the first day of his pontificate. It is an illness and it must be treated as such,” Pierre said.