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Pope Francis meets with U.S. bishops as more leaders face allegations of harassment and cover-ups

Pope Francis speaks in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Sept. 12, 2018.
Pope Francis speaks in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Sept. 12, 2018. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

Top American bishops met in the Vatican with Pope Francis on Thursday to discuss the sexual-abuse crisis that the leader of the U.S. Catholic Church said has “lacerated” the church.

That leader, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was himself accused this week of covering up the actions of an abusive priest in his archdiocese — prompting questions about DiNardo’s fitness to lead reform efforts.

“It’s too early to say, but just looking at the case, it looks very bad. It seems like a violation — is he the guy who should be leading at this point?” David Gibson, the director of the Center on Religion and Culture at the Catholic university Fordham said of DiNardo. “What he’s got to be seen to be doing is pushing for a very rigorous policy. Can he do that if he himself has not been as diligent, to say the least, as he should be?”

The moral authority of bishops across the United States has come under new scrutiny after one cardinal resigned this summer and another publicly stated he might do so, and a bishop was removed from ministry by Pope Francis on Thursday. That bishop, Michael J. Bransfield of West Virginia, will face a church investigation on charges of sexual harassment.

Amid the crisis facing the church’s leaders, the bishops who met with Francis on Thursday said very little about what they discussed in terms of plans for change.

“We shared with Pope Francis our situation in the United States — how the Body of Christ is lacerated by the evil of sexual abuse. He listened very deeply from the heart,” DiNardo said in a statement after leaving the meeting, which also included Archbishop Seán Patrick O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced on Aug. 14 a sweeping report on sex abuse in the Catholic Church. (Video: Reuters)

It was a lengthy, fruitful and good exchange,” he said. “As we departed the audience, we prayed the Angelus together for God’s mercy and strength as we work to heal the wounds. We look forward to actively continuing our discernment together identifying the most effective next steps.”

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On Wednesday, as DiNardo prepared for his meeting with the pope, the Associated Press reported that a woman claims to have told DiNardo about an abusive priest in his Texas archdiocese, and that DiNardo failed to take action to remove the priest from ministry until the priest was arrested on child abuse charges this week.

The accusation only fueled calls for increased lay leadership and for the resignation of bishops nationwide that have echoed through the Catholic Church since a Pennsylvania grand jury completed a massive report last month, detailing allegations of abuse by more than 300 priests in the state. States including Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York have now launched investigations.

Gibson called for a board of lay leaders, not clergy, empowered to investigate whether bishops are properly handling all allegations of abuse. “The pope seems to feel that he can do it on his own here and there. But I don’t think that’s a credible way to go forward,” he said.

However, some in the church say internal investigations are still the proper way to handle the crisis.

Teresa Kettelkamp, who headed the office of youth protection for the American bishops and now sits on a similar commission for Pope Francis, said Francis is pursuing an appropriate course of action of having bishops clean house in their own dioceses. “A lot of good people are working for the good of the cause. And hopefully investigation results will be shared fully with the public, and if action is needed, it will be taken as fast as humanly possible, with no foot-dragging,” she said. “The truth always comes to light.

Asked if DiNardo could continue to lead the U.S. church on this issue despite being accused of covering for a priest himself, she said she would wait “until I know all the facts.”

DiNardo is accused of mishandling the case of the Rev. Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, who was arrested in Conroe, Tex., on Tuesday on four counts of indecency with a child. Police say La Rosa-Lopez fondled two teenagers when he was a priest at a Conroe church. At the time of his arrest, he was a priest at another church in Richmond, Tex., the police report said.

The AP said that both victims, who were teenagers at the time, are now in their 30s. Their names have not been released because they are victims of sexual abuse. One victim told police that her family reported La Rosa-Lopez’s conduct to the church after he touched her when she was a teenager and that the priest was transferred to another parish as a result. In 2010, the victim said she saw that La Rosa-Lopez was still in ministry and met with DiNardo, who had not been in Texas when she first raised the allegation.

The victim told police that DiNardo told her the priest wouldn’t work with children. But eight years later, La Rosa-Lopez was still in a parish church. “I’m tired of all of his empty words,” the victim said of DiNardo, to the AP. “If he’s going to go meet with the pope and pretend that all of this is okay and his diocese is clean, I can’t stand it.”

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The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston responded in a statement that church officials considered the woman’s allegations when she first reported the priest in 2001, and that an archdiocesan review board decided to allow La Rosa-Lopez to return to parish ministry in 2004 based on the evidence presented to the board.

The only other complaint about La Rosa-Lopez was in 2018, the archdiocese said. That victim reported his abuse to the church about a year ago, according to police, but did not meet with DiNardo until last month. When he did, the church contacted Child Protective Services, and La Rosa-Lopez was arrested this week.

Teresa Pitt-Green, who co-founded the magazine Healing Voices for sexual-abuse survivors trying to maintain their Catholic faith, said she is “heartbroken” about the DiNardo allegations. She has worked with him and found him supportive of clergy abuse survivors. “I’m finding myself feeling confused if it’s true, but I’m not judging anything,” she said.

As far as whether the allegations affect DiNardo’s ability to lead the charge against abuse, Pitt-Green said: “I certainly think it challenges it. And it makes people question.”

That feeling of not knowing who to trust, she said, is especially familiar and hard for survivors who have been violated in a context that’s supposed to be holy and safe. “As a survivor, I’m very leery of what people try to present as real — and even more so now.”

On the same morning that DiNardo, facing this accusation, met with Pope Francis, the Vatican announced that Francis would accept the resignation of Bransfield, the 75-year-old leader of the Wheeling-Charleston, W. Va., diocese. Francis ordered the archbishop of Baltimore to investigate charges that Bransfield sexually harassed adults, the Baltimore archdiocese said in a statement; Bransfield previously has been accused of molesting teenagers and denied the accusations, according to church officials and court documents.

Cardinal Wuerl says he will go to the pope soon to discuss resignation

Bransfield is only the latest U.S. Catholic leader removed from his position due to sexual harassment and coverup charges. This summer, Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington from 2001 until his retirement at age 75 in 2006, became the first U.S. cardinal ever to resign from the College of Cardinals due to allegations of sexual abuse. He has been accused of sexually harassing two minors as well as young adult seminarians and priests.

And after the Pennsylvania grand-jury report last month, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington has faced local and national clamor to resign. The report describes Wuerl’s response to allegations of abuse during his 18 years as bishop of Pittsburgh; he sometimes went to great lengths to remove accused priests from churches, and other times took psychiatrists’ advice that the priests were safe and let them continue in ministry.

On Tuesday, Wuerl told the priests in the Washington archdiocese that he will travel to the Vatican soon to discuss his potential resignation with Francis. He did not say whether he would ask to be relieved of his duties by the pope, but he did say he has heard the cries for a “new beginning.”

In a story published Wednesday, the archdiocesan newspaper appeared to clarify Wuerl’s plans. “The cardinal said he has concluded that the best way to serve the Church as it moves into the future is two-fold: to participate in a process of healing for all those who have suffered abuse, and to meet soon with Pope Francis to request that the Holy Father accept the resignation that was submitted three years ago when the cardinal turned 75,” the story said.

In a blog post Thursday, Wuerl seemed to own up to sometimes erring during his time in Pittsburgh. “The processes were not flawless, and I must acknowledge the profound heartache, anger and distrust that have been expressed in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. For my shortcomings of the past and of the present I take full responsibility and wish that I could wipe away all the pain, confusion and disillusionment that people feel, and I wish that I could redo some decisions I have made in my three decades as a bishop and each time get it right,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, for survivors, the airing of so many wrongs is both painful and vindicating. Pitt-Green said that the bishops are suffering a “self-inflicted wound.”

“The pressure they feel from Catholics is nothing compared to the pressure from God to clean this up. There’s no two ways about this,” she said.

William Branigin contributed to this report.

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