BALTIMORE — In the first meeting of U.S. bishops since a national sexual abuse crisis hit the Catholic Church in June, no name came up more than that of an ex-cardinal shut away in a remote Kansas friary: Theodore McCarrick.
In debate and comments over the three-day conference in Baltimore, the now-resigned former Washington archbishop became a proxy for excessive clericalism, corruption and for those who see homosexuality as the core sin for which the church is being punished.
And then in the final hours on Wednesday, the bishops representing 196 American archdiocese and dioceses took a vote on a measure to simply “encourage” the Vatican to share documents related to its investigation of McCarrick.
It was shot down, 137 to 83.
And thus closed the gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opened dramatically with the Vatican’s insistence that the body delay a vote on reform measures until a major Vatican synod in the winter and wound down with an almost complete lack of the kind of contrition and decisive action parishioners have been demanding since summer.
Terry McKiernan, co-director of the research site and advocacy group BishopAccountability.org, said Wednesday evening that he hopes the “deference to the Vatican and the paralysis seen at this meeting raise the stakes for the U.S. bishops in the months ahead.”
“It’s even more urgent that they demonstrate some resolve and act,” rather than just wait docilely for the synod, he said.
The previous week, the bishops had signaled their plans to devote almost an entire day to prayer to seek spiritual guidance before voting on measures meant to hold themselves more accountable on the topic of clergy sex abuse. The agenda, which in an unusual move was focused almost entirely on clergy sex abuse, included the establishment of a lay commission that would receive complaints against bishops and a code of conduct that would be the first such ethical guidelines for bishops on sex abuse.
But just minutes after the meeting opened, top Vatican officials instructed the U.S. bishops to hold off a vote until the pope and national leaders from around the world met on the matter. Conference President Daniel DiNardo said Rome did not want the U.S. church to get too far ahead and fracture global Catholic unity, but several close church-watchers said U.S. and Vatican leaders were also worried about rule changes that would subvert the usual hierarchy with the Vatican at the top, then the bishops, then lay Catholics.
In hours of open sessions, bishops took the microphone at a meeting that revealed how divided they are about everything from the role of laypeople to how confrontational it is permissible to be with Rome. They disagreed over whether to blame or praise the media, whether it was okay for other accused bishops to be in their midst during the meeting and whether there should be more agreement on what constitutes a “credible” allegation of misconduct.
What they seemed to all agree upon: the extreme damage to the church that has resulted from the case of McCarrick, who was suspended and then forced out this summer after allegations of harassment by seminarians and young priests as well as at least two men who say he sexually abused them as boys. McCarrick was moved from the D.C. area to Kansas as the Vatican considers the case against him.
Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson rose to say the U.S. bishops must make clear that McCarrick is no longer welcome at any Conference events. DiNardo said he’d received thousands of letters from Catholics since summer about abuse, and “the one thing that nags at everyone is the Archbishop McCarrick issue. It just seems to be ubiquitous. This is one that needs to be addressed.”
After canceling all the action votes related to abuse, the bishops on their final day debated a measure proposed by Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Mich., asking the Vatican to make public what it can about its investigation into McCarrick.
The measure did not detail what kind of information the bishops were seeking from the Vatican, but in previous days, multiple bishops spoke about the mystery concerning exactly what McCarrick had done over the years, who in the church hierarchy knew and what was done about it.
The proposed measure read: “Recognizing the ongoing investigation of the Holy See into the case of Archbishop McCarrick be it resolved that the bishops of the U.S. Conference for Catholic Bishops encourage the Holy See to release soon all the documentation that can be released consistent with canon and civil law regarding the allegations of misconduct of Archbishop McCarrick.”
Then 30 minutes of debate ensued about whether to add the word “soon” to their request and whether they could say “misconduct” about accusations that the Archdiocese of New York and the Vatican have at least in part validated or if they needed to include the word “alleged.” Some bishops said the measure wasn’t worth passing because it didn’t really do anything, while others said it seemed too confrontational.
“This is a statement of distrust,” said Bishop Steven Bielger of Cheyenne, Wyo., who felt the measure was too vague.
The bishops paused from debating the measure, which later failed, to pass what the Conference said was its first major statement on racism in decades — since around the civil rights era — called “Open Wide Our Hearts.”
The 32-page statement called racism “an attack on human life — a life issue” and pledges that the Catholic Church will “join others in advocating and promoting policies at all levels that will combat racism and its effects in our civil and social institutions.”
McKiernan urged individual bishops to take steps they can in the months ahead to reassure lay Catholics, such as releasing lists of accused clergy, and adding more detail to lists that have already been made public.
A news conference after the meeting Wednesday evening focused on specific actions DiNardo plans to propose in Rome in February.
Among them: a process for investigating complaints against bishops reported through a third-party hotline, and finalizing the code of conduct, a protocol for removed bishops and a proposal for a single lay commission on abuse.
Several bishops said they were focused ahead on the meeting in Rome and were not discouraged.
“I agree, this conference has to be a leader, globally, and in many ways the Dallas Charter and good things in the past 16 years have to be replicated across the world,” San Jose Bishop Oscar Cantú said, referring to the document the bishops created in the early 2000s to guide how the church handles accused priests — not bishops.
Bishop Shawn McKnight, a new bishop from Jefferson City, Mo., said he saw a shift among more conservative bishops, who are often more guarded against efforts to elevate the power of laypeople.
“Left to right, there is a desire to find a way to incorporate lay genius,” McKnight said at the news conference.
Separately, on Tuesday, two groups of victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy members launched lawsuits against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. One, a class-action suit filed in federal court in Washington, also names the Holy See as a defendant. That suit accuses the Catholic Church of conspiracy and operating a continuing criminal enterprise under federal racketeering statutes, and attempts to be the first to hold the Vatican liable in the United States for the actions of its clergy.
The six plaintiffs in each suit are men from different states, and the suits do not discuss the individual abuse any of the plaintiffs suffered. Judy Keane, a spokeswoman for the Conference of Bishops, said the bishops would not comment on pending litigation. The Holy See, which is the government of the Roman Catholic Church and maintains the equivalent of an embassy in Washington, did not respond to a request for comment.