U.S. Catholic bishops to meet amid growing sexual abuse crisis

Religion News Service | 10/25/2018, 6 a.m.
VATICAN CITY Catholic bishops in the United States announced Tuesday that, at the behest of Pope Francis, they will meet ...

Those tensions were then compounded by a series of events that began in June when Pope Francis ordered retired Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a longtime leader in the U.S. church, to a life of seclusion, prayer and penance after the Vatican received credible reports that Cardinal McCarrick had sexually abused a boy several decades earlier.

It then emerged that Cardinal McCarrick also had a long history of sexually molesting seminarians when he was a bishop and archbishop in New Jersey.

In July, Pope Francis stripped him of his cardinal’s rank — a move almost without precedent — while a canonical trial continues that could lead to Cardinal McCarrick’s defrocking.

In August, the findings of a two-year investigation of abuse by Catholic clergy over the past 70 years was released by the Pennsylvania attorney general. The report detailed a horrific legacy of a thousand children abused by some 300 clerics.

While almost all the abuse took place years ago, the details infuriated the flock and the public and led to this month’s resignation of the current archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, whose handling of abuse cases while bishop of Pittsburgh for 20 years was criticized in the report.

Complicating matters even further, a former Vatican ambassador, or nuncio, to the U.S., Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, has accused Pope Francis of covering up for Cardinal McCarrick, even though the 88-year-old had retired long before Pope Francis became pope.

Faced with this onslaught of bad news and devastated credibility, the U.S. hierarchy has scrambled to come up with a plan of action ahead of its annual administrative meeting in Baltimore in November, which is usually a fairly routine three-day confab.

This year, however, USCCB leaders are hoping to push the bishops to approve plans for a third-party mechanism for reporting the sexual abuse of adults — along the lines of the fairly successful policies they put in place in 2002 for combating child abuse — as well as standards of conduct for bishops and policies to deal with churchmen who have resigned or been removed because of abuse.

Cardinal Cupich said Tuesday that he wants the bishops at their November meeting to go even further and require that all dioceses publicly list priests and bishops credibly accused of abuse. So far only about 50 out of 190 dioceses do so.

Cardinal Cupich also wants his colleagues to cede some of their zealously guarded autonomy to an independent review board of lay experts who would have the authority to investigate any bishop or cardinal accused of abuse or of covering up for abuse.

“I think we have to take action,” the cardinal said. “We are at a watershed moment. We have to deal with the issue of accountability, accountability of bishops, that has to happen. … We have to do everything possible to understand that this is a watershed moment, that accountability is key, that nobody is exempt.”

Cardinal Cupich said there have always been differences among bishops, just as there are divisions within the wider American church.

“What’s important is that we let the differences be expressed, for one thing, but also that we are willing to learn from each other, realizing that not any of us has the total answer,” he said. “We do need to find a pathway together.”