‘A springboard for action’: U.S. bishops seek firm action, reform on abuse crisis issues after assembly

November 27, 2018

Daniel Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, center, leads the opening prayer during the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore Nov. 13. Also pictured at left is Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, vice president of the USCCB. Photo by James Ramos/Herald.

BALTIMORE — At its annual gathering, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), led by Galveston-Houston archbishop and USCCB president Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, was a time devoted primarily to the church sex abuse crisis, intent prayer, and frank discussion. 

In Baltimore Nov. 12 to 14 Bishops from across the country, including Galveston-Houston Auxiliary George A. Sheltz, met as a national body of bishops from across the U.S.

Cardinal DiNardo said Nov. 14 he had opened the bishops’ fall general assembly “expressing some disappointment,” but “I end it with hope.”

“My hope is first of all grounded in Christ, who desires that the church be purified and that our efforts bear fruit,” he told his fellow bishops in Baltimore with remarks closing the public sessions of the November meeting.

“We leave this place committed to taking the strongest possible actions at the earliest possible moment,” Cardinal DiNardo 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.”

The disappointment came when he announced at the start Nov. 12 the Vatican had requested the bishops delay voting on several proposals to address the sex abuse crisis and hold bishops more accountable for dealing wayward priests and other church workers accused of sex abuse.

The directive said the proposals needed to be reviewed for conformity to canon law and that action on them needed to wait until after the February Vatican meeting for presidents of bishops’ conferences worldwide to discuss the abuse crisis.

Following the announcement, Cardinal DiNardo later said at a news conference that the bishops accepted the Vatican’s direction “with disappointment.”

“We have not lessened in any of our resolve for actions. We are going to work intensely on these items of action. We can’t vote on them totally, but clarify them, get them more intensely canonically well, so that Rome will see that. We’re going to keep pushing and moving until we get to a point where they become action,” he said.

Read: Cardinal DiNardo's General Assembly addresses

“We are ourselves not happy about this,” he said. “We are working very hard to move to action. We are just at a bump in the road.”

“[As] the events of this year have so clearly revealed, we must expand our understanding of protection and vigilance,” Cardinal DiNardo said in his opening presidential address Nov. 12. “Sexual misconduct must be more intensely dealt with in our dioceses and in our policies. The sense of justice founded on the people’s genuine instinct of faith will hold us accountable. The Church founded by Jesus Christ is one of hope and life. My dear brother bishops, we must take every precaution that our example not lead a single person away from the Lord. Whether we will be remembered as guardians of the abused or the abuser will be determined by our actions beginning this week.”

The request from the Vatican congregation was outlined in a letter received the weekend before the assembly opened. It cited two reasons for seeking the delay, according to Cardinal DiNardo.

Still, throughout the assembly, the spotlight was on the widening abuse crisis in the U.S. church and action the U.S. bishops must take to address it. Much of the meeting time was devoted to frank presentations and discussions about abuse, even with the Vatican’s request to delay a vote.

Other items on the agenda, including a pastoral letter on racism that was introduced to the body of bishops as an action item Nov. 13 and voted on Nov. 14.

They overwhelmingly approved the document, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love — A Pastoral Letter Against Racism.” It declares “racist acts are sinful because they violate justice.” “They reveal a failure to acknowledge the human dignity of the persons offended, to recognize them as the neighbors Christ calls us to love,” it adds.
The vote for passage was 241-3 with one abstention. It required a two-thirds vote by all bishops, or 183 votes, for passage.

Also on the final day’s agenda the bishops gave unanimous support for the advancement of the canonization cause of Sister Thea Bowman on the diocesan level in the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, headed by Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz. Sister Bowman grew up in that diocese and also ministered in her last years while taking care of her aging parents and subsequently fighting cancer herself.

The great-granddaughter of slaves, Sister Bowman was the only African-American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She transcended racism to leave a lasting mark on Catholic life in the United States in the late 20th century.

Other agenda items for the last day of the meeting included the approval of a budget for 2019, which reflected increased expenses related to the new clergy sex abuse crisis and a downward trend in the USCCB’s Office of Migration and Refugee Service’s budget due to federal cuts in refugee resettlement funds

They also heard reports on September’s V Encuentro held in Grapevine, and October’s Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.”

Regarding the synod, Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Conn., who was a synod delegate with Cardinal DiNArdo, said the event was a moment of great grace that needs attention of church leaders now to implement it on the diocesan level.

The bishops voted for Bishop Gregory L. Parkes of St. Petersburg, Fla., as treasurer-elect of the USCCB. He’ll take office for a three-year term next November at the end of the general assembly, succeeding Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr.

The bishops also voted for a new chairman of the Committee on National Collections and chairmen-elect for the committees on Catholic Education; Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations; Divine Worship; Domestic Justice and Human Development; Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth; and Migration.

Among speakers who gave presentations on the abuse crisis and called for action was the chairman of the National Review Board, Francesco Cesareo, president of Assumption College in Massachusetts.

“We are facing painful times as a church,” said another speaker, Father David Whitestone, chair of the bishops’ National Advisory Council. “The depth of anger, pain and disappointment expressed by members of the NAC cannot begin to be expressed adequately in words.”

He noted that progress has been made since the bishops adopted the charter, but he stressed that more needs to be done. “We can never become complacent. We must recommit to the ongoing care of all victims in their healing,” Father Whitestone said.

During a late-afternoon open discussion on the crisis, the case of Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick posed the most daunting questions for the bishops.

During the discussion, there also were calls for bishops to examine their relationship with Jesus and with God and to ask themselves what it means to be a shepherd in their dioceses.

The bishops also heard presentations on proposals for addressing the abuse crisis, so they could discuss them, even though the Vatican had requested they postpone voting on them.

The proposals include establishing standards of episcopal accountability; forming a special commission for review of complaints against bishops for violations of the accountability standards; and establishing a protocol regarding restrictions on bishops who were removed or who resigned over claims of sexual misconduct made against them or for grave negligence in office.

The bishops also heard from Heather Banis, a trauma psychologist who is victim assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. She told them that helping victims and survivors of child sex abuse heal is a journey that involves showing them repeated trustworthiness.

It begins with listening, understanding, offering responses showing that they, the victim-survivors, are believed, she said.

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States urged them to face the issue of clergy sexual abuse straight on, not to run from the challenges that confront them but “face them realistically and courageously.”

Most of the first day of the assembly was focused on discernment and prayer, with time set aside for prayer and reflection by the bishops in a makeshift chapel at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront. 

During that time, they heard from two victim-survivors what they have endured: Luis A. Torres Jr. and Teresa Pitt Green. Both painfully and vividly painted the landscape that has brought the U.S. Catholic Church to the urgent need to address the sex abuse crisis.

The day ended with the celebration of Mass. In his homily, Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis urged his brother bishops to give their all to addressing the abuse crisis and show a commitment to change what needs to be changed to put an end to any abuse.

Throughout the meeting, outside the hotel, protesters continued to gather to call for change and urge more action by the bishops to address the abuse crisis.

– Catholic News Service contributed to this story.