Tuesday, June 14, 2011

In Seattle, Scenes from a Mall... or Just Across the Street

Live from the traveling Mothership in Bellevue, Washington, a Happy Midsummer Classic to you and yours.

The agenda for this June Meeting of the US bishops having evolved through yesterday, the final draft of the plans has Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York opening his first gathering as conference president at 9.45am Pacific (12.45pm Eastern) today.

Following the traditional opening rites of every USCCB plenary -- morning prayers, a telegram to the Pope, the approval of last meeting's minutes and the introduction of bishops named since November -- the sit-down's formal business is set to open with this meeting's most-awaited agenda-item: the review of the bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

Nine years since the document's inception at Dallas, while a tweaking of the Charter to integrate 2010's enhanced Vatican norms governing abuse cases has been in the works since last summer, the discussion's backdrop has intensified considerably thanks to several high-profile developments over the last four months:
  • February's second grand-jury report on the handling of cases by leaders of the Philadelphia archdiocese, and the subsequent suspension of 24 priests found by the civil panel to have "credible" allegations of misconduct despite their prior clearance on the claims by chancery officials;
  • the last month's firestorm over a Kansas City priest who, before his May arrest on charges of possessing child pornography, remained in ministry for six months last year after his elementary-school principal reported a series of concerns over the cleric's behavior around children to top diocesan aides;
  • late May's five-part report from the Gallup Independent highlighting lapses of transparency and survivor outreach by the New Mexico diocese -- where, the paper revealed, the local review board has never met with the bishop it's tasked to advise;
  • and, lastly, the conference's own April disclosure that over a quarter of the nation's 197 dioceses, their identities undisclosed, were sent warnings after the USCCB's designated auditors found the 55 local churches lacking in their enforcement of one or another aspect of the Dallas protocols. (Despite the "management letters," the auditors found every diocese surveyed -- Philadelphia, Kansas City and Gallup included -- in compliance with the Charter for 2010.)
While numerous interventions from the review's floor manager -- the bench's Child Protection chair Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane -- have expressed a resolute confidence that "the Charter is working" and underscored an intended plan of minor fine-tuning to the Dallas text as opposed to a heavy overhaul already deemed rash in light of recent events, the final word on the matter belongs to the body. After a working in of changes suggested at this morning's preliminary discussion, the main debate and final vote on the Charter revisions is set to take place late Thursday morning, just before the plenary heads into closed-door executive session for its remaining day (at which point, it's often said, every meeting's "real" business begins).

As foreseen points of contention go, it's looking as if one will involve the nature and scope of the audits -- as one conference official indicated yesterday, with the Gavin Group's mandate to handle the process already contracted to a new entity, the incoming auditors have proposed to review the personnel files of every cleric, not just the records of the accused, which would raise red-flags on several aspects of secular standards of professional confidentiality. And from another angle, a leading voice of the bench's conservative wing said he expected a "brouhaha" at some point over the finding of last month's John Jay Report on the causes and contexts of abuse that homosexuality was a negligible factor behind the statistical spike of incidents reported in the 1960s and '70s.

After lunch, Wednesday's agenda will close with a series of addresses to the bench, including a briefing on the Stateside implementation of Anglicanorum coetibus by the papal initiative's American delegate, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, a speech on next year's International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin from the Irish capital's Archbishop Diarmuid Martin (who's apparently not giving his talk in person, but by video), and the farewell address of the longtime chief of Catholic Relief Services, Ken Hackett, whose successor at the helm of the Stateside church's humanitarian arm was reportedly being decided late yesterday at a meeting of the CRS search committee for the post.

In other committee news, at its meet-up yesterday, the bishops' Doctrine Committee discussed the fallout of its recent critique of Quest for the Living God, the widely-cited 2007 work from the Fordham University theologian Sr Elizabeth Johnson, who responded to the move with a lengthy defense late last month.

In a sign of the decidedly mixed reaction the "blast" has garnered, at its annual meeting in San Jose last weekend, the Catholic Theological Society of America passed a rare full resolution lamenting a lack of "informal conversation" with the theologian before the committee issued its judgment (as the conference's own protocols recommend). Even more pointedly, as he greeted the group's gathering on his turf, Silicon Valley's Bishop PJ McGrath took a swipe at some of his confreres, using his appearance to warmly praise Johnson, and remarking along the way that it was "was a long time ago" when the church's best theologians were likewise its bishops. (At the prelate's close, the crowd responded with a standing ovation.)

All that said, more to come both here and via Page Three as things drop… so sit back, buckle up, and for all the rest, as always, stay tuned.