Sunday, November 18, 2018

“O God, Glorify Thea….”

Lest it wasn't already clear, Church, Plenary Week always takes a bit of recovery and time to process... given this one, all the more.

While the scribe's putting the 600-piece jigsaw back together, however, what's arguably the lone "God-moment" born of these last days – by far the meeting's happiest turn – is already springing to life: later this morning, in the northern Mississippi cathedral from which her heroic witness would spread across this global Body, Sister Thea Bowman will be declared a Servant of God upon the formal opening of her cause for sainthood.

For no shortage of us, Wednesday's unanimous bench-vote that endorsed Thea's long-delayed walk to the altars was a dream come true. And if this is somehow news to you, yet again, you haven't been paying attention.

Though the resources of the Jackson church – by land, the largest diocese in the US' eastern half – are starkly thin, enthusiasm over the cause is inversely high across all sorts of quarters. Accordingly, to mark today's launch, a website for the cause has been rolled out, and with it, the following prayer for the intercession of our Sister and She-ro....

Ever loving God,
who by your infinite goodness
inflamed the heart of your Servant and religious,
Sister Thea Bowman,
with an ardent love for You and Your People, the Church:

a love expressed through her indomitable spirit,
her deep and abiding faith, dedicated teaching, exuberant singing,
and unwavering witnessing of the joy of the Gospel.

As her prophetic ministry continues to inspire us
to share the Good News with those whom we encounter
– most especially the poor, oppressed, and marginalized –
may Sister Thea’s life and legacy compel us
to walk together,
to pray together,
and to remain together as missionary disciples
ushering in a new evangelization for the Church we love.

Gracious God,
imbue us with the grace and perseverance
that you gave your Servant, Sister Thea.
For in turbulent times of racial injustice,
she sought equity, peace, and reconciliation.
In times of intolerance and ignorance,
she brought wisdom, awareness, unity, and charity.
In times of pain, sickness, and suffering,
she taught us how to live fully
until called home to the land of promise.

If it be your Will, O God,
glorify our beloved Sister Thea,
by granting the blessing I now request through her intercession
(mention your request)
so that all may know of her goodness and holiness
and may imitate her love for You and Your Church.

We ask this through Your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.
*  *  *
Meanwhile, for those in need of Thea 101, here again is the Servant of God's celebrated preach to the bench at the US bishops' June 1989 meeting at Seton Hall, nine months before her death from bone cancer at 52.

At her insistence, two words were carved on her tombstone: "She Tried."

Especially in these days, may we who remain know the grace to begin to do just that.

Blessed Thea, pray for us... please help us to get home.


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

On the Floor, A "Free" For All

BALTIMORE – Even if the climactic votes have been nixed at Rome's behest, this afternoon's USCCB sessions still bring the presentation of the various reform drafts being proposed and – even more importantly – a lengthy period of "free discussion" among the prelates on the crisis: the first chance they've had to do that since this fresh season of scandal erupted in June.

Here, the livefeed – on-demand video of the hourlong open exchange, which'll extend into an unusual third day of public session on Wednesday...

...and as ever, more to come.


The "Gold Standard" Returns – Amid Abuse Mess, Pope Restores Scicluna To CDF

Especially as yesterday's Vatican move to nix the US bishops' votes on several crisis-spurred reforms had the effect of detonating an ecclesial bomb of confusion and outrage, this Tuesday's latest salvo from Rome is all the more significant: six years since "The Most Dangerous Man in the Vatican" was quietly slipped out of town, Archbishop Charles Scicluna is coming home to the "Holy Office."

At Roman Noon, the Pope named the 59 year-old Maltese (above right) as adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – a second #3 official, joining the Bronx-born Archbishop Gus DiNoia OP, another Ratzinger favorite alongside whom Scicluna worked closely during his first CDF tour. In a unique arrangement not seen for the Curia in a half-century, however, the announcement added that Scicluna "will remain archbishop of Malta," where he was recently given an auxiliary to help balance his already increased Roman workload.

(Correcting an earlier part of this piece, while DiNoia reached the retirement age of 75 in July – and has already voiced a hope to return to the US upon its acceptance – earlier this year, Francis asked the Yale-trained theologian to remain in post for the time being. Considering CDF's vastly expanded role as the global church's clearinghouse of abuse cases – now including accusations against bishops – on top of its traditional role as guardian of doctrine, the provision of two additional top officers tracks with the rapid growth of the caseload and related issues.)

Having spent over a decade at CDF as promoter of justice – the lead prosecutor who oversaw the removal of some 3,000 abusive clerics worldwide once the congregation wrested competence for the cases in 2001 – Scicluna's star has risen even further over the last year after the archbishop led Francis' probe of the roiled Chilean church, whose damning findings saw the country's bishops submit their resignations as a bloc during a May summons to Rome.

To date, the Pope has removed seven of Chile's diocesan bishops – a quarter of that bench – from office, with more in process.

Coming in tandem with the Holy See's last-minute "insistence" for the USCCB to delay this week's planned approvals of a new code of conduct for bishops and investigations of accused prelates, today's move further highlights the critical significance of February's summit in Rome for the presidents of the global church's episcopal conferences – the Vatican's first-ever worldwide gathering on the abuse crisis.

During a briefing at last month's Synod that quickly became dominated by questions over the scandals and Francis' handling of the storm, Scicluna pleaded for doubters of the pontiff to "give him time," underscoring with it his sense that the winter meeting would produce concrete outcomes on the accountability of bishops. In light of today's move, the latter result suddenly seems all the more bankable, let alone the potential for global norms addressing those cases (e.g. prelates involved in cover-ups or other abuses of power) not treated in existing law.

As he's retaining his diocese – and with it, the presidency of Malta's three-man bishops' conference – Scicluna notably remains an ex officio delegate to the February talks, a role he wouldn't have were he moving full-time to the new post.


Monday, November 12, 2018

Roma Locuta – Voting Finita Est

BALTIMORE – From literally the first minute of this morning's business, the meeting was thrown into disarray given a sudden call from Rome....

Lest anyone forgot, if the Pope had his way from the outset, this plenary wouldn't be taking place.

On a separate front, within minutes of the shift of plans – which clearly rattled the Floor – two Whispers ops relayed another significant change: long slated to be held in Santa Barbara, California, the bench's standard summer meeting in June 2019 will instead take place here in Baltimore. While no reason was given for the switch-up, the ostensibly larger than normal media presence and need for staff would require a bigger venue than previously foreseen. (Under the usual circumstances, the summer meetings are notorious for low turnout of bishops, aides and observers alike.)

Meanwhile, full texts are posted of Pierre's significant talk and DiNardo's Presidential Address.


At Long Last, The Floor Is Open

(Updated 9.40am)

BALTIMORE – And now, five months since the storm broke, what's arguably the climactic moment of the US church's response is now upon us.

Over 13 years of these weeks in the cradle of American Catholicism, the scene around the harborside hotel has most often been referred to as "The Circus." But this year, with a media contingent five times its normal size and protests outside slated to peak tomorrow, the term "Fortress" has taken its place; where you'd usually find two security staffers for the whole complex, this time even riding the escalators requires a credential, each of them ringed by a mix of private guards and city cops.

As for the mood, even if the weekend's arrivals and committee gatherings proceeded without incident, there's no shortage of apprehension around. Indeed, even now – while the bench quietly received the drafts of a proposed code of conduct and plans for the creation of a new, majority-lay commission to address allegations against bishops some 10 days ago – no one knows what's going to happen by this plenary's end; that this is the first chance the 250-odd bishops have had to hear each other out is a more significant variable than the wider world tends to grasp.

All that said, the standard Opening Monday will feature several twists from its 9am Eastern start – first, even before Houston's Cardinal Daniel DiNardo gives his customary Presidential Address, a separate major statement "on the crisis" will be delivered, word of which only emerged over the weekend. Yet later in the morning might just bring the day's principal fireworks –  all eyes are on the remarks of the Nuncio to Washington, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, whose unexpected private audience with Francis on Saturday morning was greeted with shock among the gathered prelates. (That, just this morning, the pontiff's Domus homily focused on the qualities of a bishop is no less significant.)

Here, the livefeed, and the full agenda for the unusual three days of public sessions:

As ever, more to come.

SVILUPPO: From this morning's session, a new piece contains further significant developments.


Tuesday, November 06, 2018

On Election Day, The Pope's "Midterms"

Before anything else, to everyone here in the States, Happy Election Day (finally) – if you haven't already, Go Vote, and may the line not be too long.

Back to this side of the First Amendment, as this beat's annual round of ballots won't come for another week, greetings from the calm before Baltimore... well, what passes for it, especially this year.

With 6 Days until the US bishops sit for their most consequential Fall Plenary in a generation, a full preview's in the works. For now, though, as a first stab at sizing up the context in which it'll unfold, one aspect stands out.

Lest anyone hasn't already noticed, after moving at a striking clip for the last two years, American Catholicism's second round of an all-out abuse storm has seen the nation's appointment docket essentially grind to a halt.

Since the end of the Vatican's summer recess, just one pick has come from the Pope: the Twin Cities pastor and seminary don Juan Miguel Betancourt, all of 48, shipped across the country in mid-September as auxiliary bishop of Hartford.

The first Puerto Rican to join the Stateside bench in some three decades – sent to Connecticut amid a marked and rapid growth of its Hispanic population – Betancourt (above right, at his ordination last month) is likewise the first member of a Schoenstatt community to be named a US bishop... and for good measure, it bears noting that New England's new arrival wasn't even born when Hartford's senior prelate – the venerable Archbishop Daniel Cronin – was himself raised to the hierarchy. (The last auxiliary of Richard James Cushing, Cronin – almost 91 and still well on the move – marked his golden jubilee as a bishop in September.)

Back to the wider board, there are several reasons for the slow-down, but well among them, the DC Nunciature's usual bandwidth has ostensibly been sucked up with handling the various and widespread aspects of the crisis' fallout (not all of which have likely emerged as yet). Yet when it comes to the docket itself, another extraordinary thing has quietly taken hold: as of this writing, no less than five vacant Stateside dioceses are either currently or just have been under investigation, civil or canonical alike.

All but one are focused on the scandals – and one happens to be the nation's capital, to boot.

Beyond the archdiocese of Washington – now the focus of an investigation by the DC attorney general, and as the local US Attorney's Office likewise moves toward its own process as Cardinal Donald Wuerl's succession is decided – the others are Las Cruces and Saginaw (both under newly opened statewide probes in the wake of August's Pennsylvania grand-jury report), Wheeling-Charleston (under both a Roman inquest over the misconduct claims that forced the resignation of Bishop Michael Bransfield, as well as a subsequent state-level subpoena of files), and Memphis (where – regardless of who he might blame in televised apparitions – Bishop Martin Holley's ill-advised management triggered an A-list apostolic visitation in June that spurred his removal from office at 63 last month).

As if that wasn't enough, the list is set to grow: given the ongoing "tsunami" in Buffalo over Bishop Richard Malone's handling of cases – which has seen the embattled prelate's former secretary and his canonical adviser both seek recourse to 60 Minutes, while no less than Francis' lead aide on child protection has openly sensed "just so many violations of the [Dallas] Charter" in the debacle – it seems increasingly palpable that the 72 year-old Harvard man (a onetime auxiliary to Cardinal Bernard Law) won't be able to survive a sea of hurdles that merely includes the lone active Federal probe of a diocese beyond the Department of Justice's recently-charted investigation of the Pennsylvania church... and that was before the Western New York diocese's fresh disclosure yesterday of another 36 credibly accused priests, beyond the 42 it revealed earlier this year. All that said, adding the even-more-loaded nature of the Buffalo case to an already daunting slate of openings just goes to underscore the challenge the Hatmakers face in finding multiple suitable replacements to tackle the fires on the ground.

In a normal time, filling just one of these hotspots would be difficult... but in case it wasn't already clear: This. Is. Not. Normal.

Still, with at least 14 attorneys general having opened statewide investigations (which, in total, span across a full third of the nation's dioceses) within ten weeks – to say nothing of the nascent Federal probe's ability, if not likelihood, to cross state lines at will – this roiled scene is shaping up to be American Catholicism's "New Normal," at least for several years to come.... Yet what's even more, Rome's picks to start righting the ship represent not merely the Pope's Stateside "Midterm," but arguably – in terms of the largest religious body on these shores – the singular defining task of Francis' pontificate.

To be sure, you won't be hearing about this on the Floor next week – at least, not during the open sessions... yet once the "flock of shepherds" leaves the ballroom, it's all very fair game.

As always, stay tuned.


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

On Halloween, More Horror – NY Auxiliary "Credibly" Accused of Abuse

For just the second time in this latest cycle of scandal, a "credible, substantiated" allegation of abuse of a minor has been levied against a US bishop...

...yet what's even more striking is that both reports have come from the same place: American Catholicism's marquee diocese.

In a letter made public this Halloween morning, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York informed his priests and people that an abuse claim against Auxiliary Bishop John Jenik, 74 (above), had been deemed founded by the archdiocese's Lay Review Board.

While the Chancery's announcement didn't specify the nature of the allegation, Whispers has learned that Jenik was accused of abusing a 16 year-old boy; a subsequent report in the New York Times said the cited misconduct dates to the 1980s.

Under normal circumstances, Jenik would be permanently removed from ministry upon the lay panel's judgment. However, as the prelate immediately signaled his intent to appeal the finding to the Vatican, Dolan said that the auxiliary has "step[ped] aside" from his diocesan roles and his four-decade post as pastor of Our Lady of Refuge parish in the Bronx pending the outcome of the Roman process.

Having been given permission to send a letter of his own to his parishioners, the bishop said he "steadfastly den[ied] that I have abused anyone at any time."

On a key context note, as has become a prominent critique of the US church's 2002 abuse procedures over recent months, bishops are exempt from the protocols of the Dallas Charter and Norms, so the local investigation – only the second known instance of a diocesan investigation on an allegation against a prelate – would've required the permission of the Holy See before it could proceed. Accordingly, any binding judgment on Jenik's status would've rested with Rome regardless as bishops – even auxiliaries – are canonically answerable to the Pope alone.

In that light, despite today's move, Jenik remains an active auxiliary of New York unless and until Francis accepts his resignation from the post.

Long revered among the Gotham crowd as a heroic pastor amid the drug-and-crime-plagued "war zone" of the Bronx, Jenik was one of the three septuagenarian lifers in the trenches named as deputies to Dolan in mid-2015 by Pope Francis.

With some 2.6 million Catholics, New York is the US' second-largest diocese, but nonetheless its most prominent given the Big Apple's concentration of financial, media and geopolitical heft – a mix which has long seen the Vatican consider the city as the "Capital of the World."

Unlike last summer's watershed allegation against the long-retired Archbishop Theodore McCarrick – which resulted in the New York native's historic July resignation from the College of Cardinals – given Jenik's far more recent elevation, the accusation of an active prelate places the current appointment process for bishops under fresh scrutiny, especially as a more thorough vetting of candidates has long been seen as a concrete outcome of the 2002 tidal wave, which saw a half-dozen US prelates forced from office over decades-old, but freshly-unearthed abuse reports.

In addition, the development further roils an already scorched ecclesial landscape all of ten days out from a USCCB November plenary in Baltimore whose emotional charge is already running high, but whose substantive outcomes remain anyone's guess.

As with the accusation that felled McCarrick, the Jenik claim was brought to the New York church through the archdiocese's Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP) – a Dolan-chartered initiative that's seen his First Avenue Chancery leverage at least $100 million of its sizable real-estate holdings in the hope of resolving potential abuse suits through out-of-court mediation.

In its first round last year, IRCP reached $40 million in settlements of some 200 cases; this year's figures on payments and numbers of allegations remain to be released.

Last month, New York was an early entry among what's become more than a dozen US jurisdictions whose top prosecutors have opened statewide investigations of abuse and its cover-up in the church since August's staggering Pennsylvania grand-jury report, the nation's first civil probe that stretched across multiple dioceses. Alongside the state inquest, the cardinal named a retired Federal judge as an internal "special counsel" to review the archdiocese's files and procedures for the handling of cases.


Friday, October 26, 2018

Expanding PA Probe, Feds Warn US Church: "All Your Files Are Belong To Us"

As this scribe's routinely said among friends over these last four months, "Every time you turn around, something else blows up...."

...yet when this readership gets jumpy about the last thing that went off, that only shows an ignorance about the next one.

If you could, folks, please keep that in mind – this is a long ride, with no end in sight.

Along those lines, over the last 48 hours, many of you have had Memphis on your lips given Wednesday's striking removal of Bishop Martin Holley – given his steadfast refusal to resign, the first such Roman ouster of a US prelate in living memory – followed quickly by the deposed prelate's even more breathtaking self-immolation in an interview published late Thursday by Catholic News Agency. 

Well-placed as that focus might've been yesterday, over the hours since, something even bigger's come to pass....


A week since initial word emerged of the US Department of Justice's most sweeping investigation to date into abuse and its cover-up, as an extension into the Feds' nascent grand-jury probe of the dioceses of Pennsylvania, every last Stateside Chancery has now received an effective nationwide order "to not destroy, discard, dispose of, delete, or alter" a host of records pertaining to personnel in general, and abuse – and its related claims – in particular.

Dated October 9th – the same day the FBI swooped in with subpoenas for the clerical files of Pennsylvania's eight Latin-church dioceses and two Eastern archeparchies – the letter was privately circulated to the nation's hierarchy by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on Tuesday, 23 October, and has duly spread since among internal counsels and personnel-chiefs across the Stateside church's 198 jurisdictions.

Addressed to the bench's president, Houston's Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the "requested" national "hold" of documents was signed by William McSwain, the Trump-appointed US Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, whose Philadelphia-based office has launched the historic investigation – believed to be the first such inquest seeking to put the church under the microscope of the Federal "RICO" laws: the racketeering statutes usually reserved for organized crime.

While Whispers has obtained and confirmed the full document – which includes a sprawling, 20-point addendum citing specific instances in Canon Law – to avoid what's become an increasingly casual and common plagiarism of these pages' work by other entities, here's the first page of McSwain's letter:

Originally slated for Wednesday of this week, house ops report that the first appearance of the Pennsylvania bishops before the Federal panel has been slightly delayed. 

Meanwhile, given the lack of civil or canonical jurisdiction the DC Mothership has over the local churches – an issue likewise relevant to the coming debates over prelates' accountability apart from the oversight of the Holy See – it bears noting that legal disputes over the force of any request to the USCCB have already flared up anew in Chanceries and beyond. Nonetheless, as it's the Feds calling, to an unprecedented degree, the warning is served.

Keeping with the Justice Department's usual practice, the US Attorney's Office in Philadelphia routinely refuses to "confirm or deny" the existence of the Pennsylvania investigation, its explicit communication on the case only to occur if and when indictments are produced.

*  *  *
All that said, as ever, this grade of reporting doesn't come out of thin air – and especially as $800 is due today for these pages' base in Baltimore for the coming plenary, the reminder's again in order that these pages can't exactly keep afloat on "Hail Marys"....


Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Into the Woods – In Obedience To Pope, US Bench Sets January Retreat

With less than three weeks until a November meeting that's arguably even more consequential than its seismic 2002 predecessor in Dallas – and amid a fraught planning that's come under pointed criticism from no shortage of fronts – this afternoon brought another sudden development in the gradual response of the US bishops: the Mothership's announcement that the bench would convene for a weeklong retreat at Chicago's Mundelein Seminary (above), beginning on January 2nd.

As Whispers first reported last month, the initiative was born from the direct initiative of the Pope, who urged the conference's leadership to cancel next month's traditional plenary in Baltimore in favor of a closed period of spiritual exercises during the US executive's initial crisis talks with Francis on 13 September. As subsequently relayed here, the pontiff's rationale for the push was so the polarized body of bishops could begin "to heal the division" amongst themselves. (In terms of context, meanwhile, it is notable that Francis began last May's Roman summit with the abuse-tarred Chilean bishops by passing out the text of a lengthy Ignatian meditation of his own, leaving the group a day to ponder it before they presented their resignations en bloc.)

Given the lack of feasibility of nixing the Fall Classic due to its years-in-advance hotel bookings – and with it, the untold funds already spent on the arrangements – the move to gather at Chicago's "Enchanted Forest" seminary in quite penitential weather doesn't just represent a lightning-speed response as the bench's usual timing goes, but is essentially a response as close to the spirit of Francis' request as the pinnacle of American Catholicism's institutional behemoth could ever hope to muster.

In today's invitation letter to the prelates – which, without explicitly saying so, repeatedly indicated the "command performance" nature of the event – the conference president, Houston's Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, revealed that the Pope "has kindly offered" the Vatican's lead in-house homilist, Capuchin Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, to lead the retreat.

As if the exercise itself wasn't going to be interesting enough.

No stranger to controversy, over his nearly four decades as preacher of the Papal Household – a post seen by the world only on Good Friday, but likewise tasked with giving the pontiff's private Friday reflections in Lent and Advent – the 84 year-old friar (long a favorite of the church's Charismatic movements and frequent visitor to the States) has compared the world's focus on the abuse scandals to "the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," equated the 2006 film release of the The DaVinci Code to Judas' betrayal of Jesus, and infuriated traditionalists with an homage to the late Sulpician biblicist Fr Raymond Brown as "the greatest scholar of the Passion."

(For the record, the preceding lines were merely from Cantalamessa's Good Friday turns in St Peter's – in other words, the one annual moment when he should've been expected to "behave." In that light, considering the shape of a body whose red meat specialists tend to attract the bulk of the national hierarchy's news-focus, in this preacher, it'd seem they've met their match.)

At the same time, however, in a late 2005 sermon (read: to Benedict XVI), Cantalamessa lamented over how the church's "immense doctrinal edifice" obscures its Lord, calling attempts to enforce Catholic teaching in an unevangelized world as akin to "putting one of those old heavy brocade capes all of a sudden on the back of a child," while telling Francis' Curia eight years later that humility "is possessed by those who think they do not have it, and it is not possessed by those who think they have it."

To be sure, the Raniero Desk doesn't lack for "greatest hits." Still, regardless of what one makes of the man and the moment, this much is clear: amid January's bitter cold, the preacher comes to Chitown as the Pope's agent, and with him, a heavy focus on both the central role of the Holy Spirit in ecclesial renewal – at least, if He's given space to work – as well as a Franciscan "stripping" of ecclesiastical decadence is to be expected.

After all, as the bench's newfound "guest" put it in another 2013 homily to Pope and Curia:
"One of the factors of the obscuring of the Gospel was the transformation of authority understood as service to authority understood as power, which produced infinite conflicts within and outside the Church...."
*  *  *
On a couple related context fronts, the January retreat will open a calendar year whose end already has another big bang lined up: the previously-broken ad limina visit of the entire US episcopate, which is slated to unfold over a matter of weeks in November and December 2019.

While the last four months have already put the Stateside church under heavy focus in Rome and beyond, only the year-end pilgrimage will mark the national fold's – and its leaders' – first in-depth Vatican "physical" of Francis' pontificate.

And lastly, confirming Whispers' reporting over the weekend, DiNardo told the USCCB-owned Catholic News Service yesterday in Rome that the opening Monday of the 12-15 November meeting in Baltimore will be given to a communal time of "prayer, penance and fasting" for the bishops; again, the form and speakers for the Floor sessions remain in the works.

As ever, more to come.