Thursday, September 13, 2018

In Mountain State, A Fresh Scandal – Pope Bumps WV Prelate Over Harassment Claims

As the leadership of the US bishops entered the Papal Apartment for their first crisis talks with the Pope, the storm of these weeks broke out on yet another front: at Roman Noon this Thursday, the Pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston five days after the West Virginia prelate turned 75, sending in Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore "to conduct an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment of adults" by the now-retired cleric.

Though the Vatican did not disclose the rationale behind the move in its announcement, Lori revealed the context in a subsequent statement, saying he was "instructed" to do so by the Holy See.

"I pledge to conduct a thorough investigation in search of the truth into the troubling allegations against Bishop Bransfield," the archbishop said, "and to work closely with the clergy, religious and lay leaders of the diocese until the appointment of a new bishop."

Having already made the trip to West Virginia's statewide church, the Baltimore prelate will spend the next two days gathering preliminary information in Wheeling. Lori's first public appearance isn't slated until Saturday night, when he'll celebrate the diocese's locally televised 6pm Vigil Mass in St Joseph's Cathedral.

The first US prelate to leave office over public reports of misconduct with adults since 2012 – when the Los Angeles auxiliary Gabino Zavala resigned on admitting to being the father of two young children – the claims against Bransfield have not been openly specified. Together with this morning's announcement, the Wheeling Chancery opened a hotline to receive new allegations or tips for the coming probe.

Unusually for a departing prelate, Bransfield issued no statement today – whether the silence was upon his own wishes or Rome's orders is unclear. Nonetheless, the strikingly quick process on the Vatican's side – according to Whispers ops, roughly a month in the making – indicates that the allegations have been deemed sufficiently credible to warrant the bishop's removal.

Long known as one of the American hierarchy's top financiers (and, accordingly, a prior USCCB Treasurer), Bransfield – a Philadelphia native – first came to prominence over his two decades as rector of Washington's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, transforming the nation's largest church into one of American Catholicism's most prominent worship-sites.

Over his tenure at the helm of the West Virginia fold, the accused prelate often made news for his use of the diocese's ample reserves to fund initiatives for health-care and education, as well as relief efforts, across one of the nation's poorest states, which has become one of the hardest-hit venues of the ongoing opioid epidemic.

From his DC days, meanwhile, the bishop was a close collaborator of now-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, choosing the then-cardinal as one of his two lead co-consecrators at his 2005 ordination, then becoming a key player alongside McCarrick in the work of the Papal Foundation – the private US-based trust to support the Pope's works of charity around the world – which has come under added scrutiny in the wake of the Washington prelate's seismic downfall over abuse allegations involving minors and adults alike.


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Another Day, Another Watershed – Pope Calls "Synod" on Abuse

Lest anyone missed the message earlier, again, welcome to Crunch Time... and right on cue, yet another game-changing development has dropped.

Ostensibly driven by the Pope's "Gang of Nine" cardinal-advisers, the following statement was released shortly after Roman Noon this Wednesday:
The Holy Father Francis, after hearing the Council of Cardinals, has decided to convene a meeting with the presidents of the Episcopal Conferences of the Catholic Church on the theme of the “protection of minors”.

The meeting with the Pope will be held in the Vatican from 21 to 24 February 2019.

During [its] 26th meeting, which took place from 10 to 12 of this month, the Council reflected extensively together with the Holy Father on the theme of abuse, issuing the Communiqué published by the Holy See Press Office on 10 September.
* * *
While the term wasn't used in the release, the summons of the conference presidents from across the global church is tantamount to an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops – in that format, employed only three times since 1965 (and reserved for pressing situations of universal import), the heads of the national benches are the core ex officio participants; unlike an ordinary Synod, no elected delegates are present.

Notably, a proposal for just that kind of gathering was raised by a key US voice last month – a former USCCB child-protection chair and vocations czar, Bishop Ed Burns of Dallas signed a joint letter alongside his Consultors and presbyteral council asking Francis to call an extraordinary assembly that would accomplish "systemic change," focusing on "the care for the safeguard of children and the vulnerable, outreach to victims, the identity and lifestyle of clergy, the importance of healthy human formation," then going on to "address abuse of power, clericalism, accountability and the understanding of transparency in the church."

With the pontiff now set to receive the USCCB leadership for crisis talks tomorrow, by default, the key figure of the new global push is already slated to be in attendance: Cardinal Seán O'Malley OFM Cap. of Boston, who Francis tapped to lead a new organ on the topic in 2014, with an unusual direct report to himself.

While the Capuchin prelate has come under successive rounds of criticism in recent weeks over the handling of specific allegations referred to his office – which don't fall under the purview of the commission he leads – today's announcement signals a papal vote of confidence in O'Malley's efforts, and quite possibly a direct response to the cardinal's strikingly public call last week for Francis "to break through the bureaucracy and implement significant change."

Speaking of Synods, while not formally named as one, the February gathering will nonetheless be the second synodal gathering of 2019, with next October's assembly on the Amazon already well in the preparation. And of course, next month brings the long-planned assembly on young people and vocations, whose focus has taken on a new dimension amid the abuse storm.

As ever, more to come.


Seeking Capital's "New Beginning," The Cardinal Eyes His Exit

For more than three decades, he's been squarely in medias res – first a John Paul II "teaching bishop," then Benedict XVI's first top US appointee and, finally, "something more pastoral" under Francis.

By turns he's managed decline and overseen growth, served as a healer or lightning rod depending on the need of the moment, been Relator of a Roman Synod, a member of the Congregation for Bishops – and along the way, become the only Stateside prelate ever to host two papal visits....

And for all that, what no one could've imagined is that the long, storied run would end like this.

Battered by the confluence of two sudden storms – the historic downfall of his predecessor, then the equally stunning blow of a grand jury's claim that he mishandled abuse cases at the helm of his hometown church – Cardinal Donald Wuerl has effectively set his departure as archbishop of Washington in motion, telling his priests in a letter released Tuesday night that he would go to Rome "in the very near future" to discuss his long-pending retirement with the Pope "so that this archdiocesan church we all love can move forward."

Nearly three years since submitting his required exit letter on his 75th birthday, as previously reported, Wuerl's succession process had initially been expected through the first half of this year, but was suddenly short-circuited owing to the allegation of abuse of a minor levied in January against then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, which led to the retired prelate's removal from ministry on the charge's finding as credible and substantiated in June.

Given the gravity of the situation – and the simple reality that the 750,000-member capital church had largely been spared from prior abuse storms, and thus wasn't prepared for the fallout – it was ostensibly deemed that a change of leadership would've further destabilized the scene, plunging a new archbishop's tenure into crisis at its outset. What wasn't anticipated, however, was the seismic impact of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, whose blistering treatment of several – but not all – of the cases Wuerl oversaw during his 18 years as bishop of his native Pittsburgh (1988-2006) proved sufficient to blow a hole in the narrative the future cardinal long burnished of having purged the ranks of abusers a decade before the Dallas Norms made "zero tolerance" national law.

As the ferocious blowback to the August findings saw Wuerl become the report's de facto public face as the top active hierarch mentioned, the cardinal's name was quickly removed from Pittsburgh’s newest diocesan high school complex, but not before the sign outside it was vandalized.

Indeed, even more than what's unfolded in the ever-politicized spotlight of the capital and the broader Catholic conversation, the sunset of Wuerl’s glistening legacy in the Steel City is arguably the roughest cut of all. Having been a near-omnipresent figure during his tenure there – hosting a catechetical TV show, drumming up broad support for Catholic schools and, all around, enjoying a civic prominence on a par with a generation of mayors – since his 2006 departure for Washington, Wuerl has effectively served from afar as Pittsburgh's "Über-Bishop," still returning home to preside at major events, most recently celebrating last year's cathedral funeral for Dan Rooney: the daily communicant, Steelers owner and US ambassador to Ireland, a close friend of the cardinal's whose backing was a mainstay for practically every charitable work of the local church and beyond.

As for what's next, there'll be time for that in due course. For now, however, much as it's become increasingly obvious that the abuse storms have drastically recast the calculus for the process which will produce Wuerl's DC successor, beyond the need for healing, the even longer-frame challenge facing the capital church is its reality of extraordinary growth – the archdiocese boomed by roughly a third since 2006, the parishes of the archdiocese's Maryland suburbs boast a reality that's far more Southeast than Northeast, not a few requiring a dozen weekend Masses across several languages, with schools that are as packed as the tuition is high. Accordingly, even if the seventh archbishop will have a "baptism by fire" in arriving to more than enough tensions to soothe on the ecclesial and political fronts, the pick's ability to plan for the future arguably remains his most significant task at hand.

In terms of potentialities, it's likewise too early for that – for one, too many key players remain too shocked at the turn of events to fully process what's happened...

...yet what's more, an occurrence that didn't come to pass in 2002 but already has this time – namely, a markedly shifted power dynamic at the top of the nation's largest religious body – is only beginning to sink in, its full effect still to become clear.

All that said, below is the text of Wuerl's letter, released last night through the diocesan channels:

Dear Brother Priest,

On Monday, September 3, prior to our annual Labor Day gathering, we had an opportunity to pray together and, as I was asked by our Holy Father Pope Francis, to discern the best course of action for me to pursue as we face new revelations of the extent of the horror of the clergy abuse of children and the failures in episcopal oversight. At issue is how to begin effectively to bring a new level of healing to survivors who have personally suffered so much and to the faithful entrusted to our care who have also been wounded by the shame of these terrible actions and have questions about their bishop’s ability to provide the necessary leadership.

It was clear that some decision, sooner rather than later, on my part is an essential aspect so that this archdiocesan Church we all love can move forward. As a fruit of our discernment I intend, in the very near future, to go to Rome to meet with our Holy Father about the resignation I presented nearly three years ago, November 12, 2015.

Our discernment here, I believe, has indicated the way forward to bring healing and a new beginning at the service of this Church. I am particularly grateful for your patience and respect for this time of discernment.

I ask you please to include me in your prayers.

Faithfully in Christ,

Cardinal Donald Wuerl
Archbishop of Washington

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

All of a sudden, Church, it's Crunch Time again – ten weeks in, with no end in sight, the sprint's become a marathon, so hopefully you've begun to grasp why the need for pacing is in order.

Lest anyone thought what you're already seeing is the sum total of the state of things, just to be fully clear: It Isn't.

Ergo, as yet more pieces come together, the shop still has its bills to pay... as ever, these pages only keep plugging through thanks to your support (and hopefully with it, your prayers):


Finally – After Two Month Wait, US Bench Gets "Summit" with Francis

(Updated 7pm ET with further developments.)

Around 8.30pm Rome time this Tuesday, the Holy See Press Office released the following statement to the accredited outlets:
This Thursday, 13 September 2018, the Holy Father will receive in the apostolic palace His Eminence Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States of America, together with His Eminence Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

With them will be H.E. Mons. José Horacio Gómez, Archbishop of Los Angeles, vice president of the same episcopal conference; and Monsignor Brian Bransfield, Secretary General [sic].

The audience will take place at noon.
Suffice it to say, it's about time – as Whispers reported in the side-feed on Friday....
To clarify that report, while the formal ask from the USCCB Executive was indeed received on 20 August, an informal request for an audience had been pending before Francis from the time of McCarrick's departure from the College. In that light, during an early August conference call with the bench's top brass, DiNardo vented that he was still waiting for a meeting with the Pope to be scheduled, according to Whispers ops apprised of the talks.

On another front, a proposal that the traveling group be comprised of all the US cardinals – a repeat of the April 2002 "summit" of the entire top rank with John Paul II – was reportedly nixed by the conference president. However, as O'Malley's already been a participant in the Executive's frequent phone sessions over recent weeks in his role as Francis' point-man on abuse, his addition to the group comes as little surprise; the Boston prelate is already in Rome this week for the periodic meeting of the Pope's Council of (Nine) Cardinals on Curial reform.

*  *  *
This morning, the bench began its first major gathering since the crisis' eruption – the usual two-day September meeting of the Administrative Committee in Washington.

Comprised of some 30 prelates – the five-man Executive, standing committee chairmen and representatives of the 15 regions – the talks were expected to "put flesh on the bones" of the action plan DiNardo and his top team have gradually rolled out over recent weeks. Accordingly, the planned sprawling agenda for the Admin was scrapped at the session's start this morning, that the meeting would be devoted to crafting the national response.

Given the executive's proposed design of an all-lay board, which theoretically would have authority over bishops in terms of investigating allegations of abuse or cover-up by members of the hierarchy, any shift of the kind would require a two-thirds vote of the entire body of bishops at November's plenary in Baltimore, as well as the recognitio (approval) of the Holy See for it to take force. In practice, that means that any proposals would have an informal sign-off from Rome before being presented to the bench for its final debate and vote; as some will recall, in 2002 the Vatican's confirmation of the Dallas Norms was held up amid the Curia's concerns over due process for accused clerics, requiring a mixed commission of Roman officials and USCCB representatives to negotiate the nuances before the "zero tolerance" standard was approved as particular law for the US.

With the Nuncio to Washington, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, just returned from his annual summer break, more developments on several fronts are expected over the coming days.

SVILUPPO: Again run first in these pages' side-feed, Whispers ops report that the traveling party is already in flight....

...and in no less of a seismic development, the following broke after 6pm Eastern:

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Amid "Our Disillusionment and Outrage... As Leaders of The Church, It Is Time For Us To Repent"

For a brief, stunning moment, everything felt different.

A month ago this week – much as it already seems like a year – as the white-hot reaction to the Pennsylvania grand-jury report bore down, the uniqueness of the moment across two decades of this "long Lent" was most potently evidenced by one thing: all of a sudden, the usual ideological reflexiveness of the English-speaking Catholic conversation began to break down, and (albeit in searing anger), a unity of purpose could be seen forming....

Eleven days later, however, the charged release of the Viganò testimony shattered that – within minutes, the polarized camps returned with a (literal) vengeance, and it's only been downhill since.

Now two weeks on from the retired Nuncio's "nuclear" memo and the ongoing circus atmosphere it created, the latest "Twilight Zone" turn of Crisis 2.0 yields a fresh lesson across the polarized divide: if there's one thing seemingly everyone can agree on, it's how this moment and the road ahead needs to – and will – mark a new chapter in the American Catholic story. If it's going to be a better one, though, then the worst excesses of the era now ending – high among them, the self-referential, zero-sum daily campaigns to score points for one's chosen "side" – are best left behind with it. Put another way, for those who really believe that the life of the world depends on the mission of this Church and how it responds to – and learns from – these days, then acting like it isn't simply a matter for the guys at the top.

With three separate tracks to this "perfect storm" already in motion, the focus of this moment begins to shift yet again, and we'll see it unfold over the days just ahead. As a starter, though, given the pure horror of these weeks on any number of fronts, it's important to remember the core demands that need to be met, and where the responsibility for heeding them begins.

Along those lines, while several dioceses (and even parishes) have begun to undertake similar efforts, the US' largest and most prominent Liturgy of Repentance to date was held last week in New Orleans with a crowd of 2,000 packed to standing-room in one of the city's most cavernous churches. Adding to the event's significance, its presider was the USCCB Secretary, Archbishop Gregory Aymond, whose moving, powerful homily (text) at the evening Mass likewise drew from his prior experience as head of the bench's child-protection arm.

If anyone's still looking for the way to begin addressing this thick, rough sea, this is it:

Indeed, this is the start, but hardly the end. As for the following phases, another optimal push is coming from yet another former OCYP chair – in Dallas, first rocked by abuse and cover-up revelations in the late 1990s, Bishop Ed Burns has announced listening sessions across the 1.3 million-member diocese through October, each preceded by a penitential liturgy, as a way of absorbing the anger and beginning to chart a way forward.

Looking more broadly, meanwhile, only these weeks have shown many of us that what 2002 should've been, it wasn't.

In that light, much as the fresh round of damage may already seem "done," a lacking response in these days will only make the toll even worse.

Please God, may that not happen... well, not again.


Friday, September 07, 2018

In the Northeast, The "Dragnet" Spreads

While prosecutors in several states have moved toward new investigations of abuse and its cover-up in the wake of last month's Pennsylvania grand jury report, Thursday brought not only the most significant legal developments since the historic probe's 900-page findings were released, but arguably of the US' entire two-decade abuse crisis.

In a watershed double hit separated by a matter of hours, after the Associated Press reported that the New York Attorney General, Barbara Underwood, had subpoenaed the relevant personnel and settlement files of the state's eight dioceses (New York, Albany, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Ogdensburg, Rochester, Rockville Centre and Syracuse), New Jersey's top prosecutor, Gurbir Grewal, announced a task force set to culminate in a statewide grand jury covering its five local churches (Newark, Camden, Metuchen, Paterson and Trenton).

Given the populations at hand – not to mention the confluence of both in the US' largest media market – the twin probes will extend the current crisis' ongoing shadow over the church far beyond the Tri-State region. What's more, the scope of the individual processes – likely to entail tens of thousands of documents and scores of witnesses – are virtually certain to extend over several years.

Overseen by a judge and armed with sweeping powers, while the statutes governing grand juries vary from state to state, most are prohibited from extending beyond two or three years, and require an annual renewal by the courts during the process as a safeguard against prosecutorial excess. That said, as New York laws don't allow for a statewide panel to conduct a probe and levy charges, Underwood's prior announcement of a "civil investigation" – ostensibly similar to her predecessors' sprawling looks into financial crimes by Wall Street's leading banks – is reportedly to be carried out in "partnership" with the district attorneys of the Empire State's 62 counties, who have already pledged their cooperation as their areas of jurisdiction require it.

In terms of the wider church, the New York probe immediately becomes the largest and most prominent civil inquest the US church has ever faced. And well beyond the reality of its spread across the third-largest state (where Catholics comprise roughly a third of the population), there's the prominence of the marquee outpost now under investigation: the nation's second-largest diocese – the 2.6 million-member archdiocese which the Vatican has long deemed the "capital of the world."

Home to a cardinal almost without interruption for 150 years – and usually American Catholicism's most visible figure in the nation's life, at that – the prospect of successive archbishops of New York being revealed as kingpins of a cover-up would have a tidal impact in the church history department. Yet in both New York and New Jersey, an even bigger concern in the present involves the hierarchy's ongoing efforts to beat back retroactive suspensions of the civil statute of limitations – the so-called "window" laws allowing victims to sue regardless of when the alleged abuse occurred. While several New York dioceses have rolled out mediation programs which compensate survivors from any period through an internal process in lieu of litigation, as in the wake of the Pennsylvania report, the findings of the new probes would likely galvanize public advocacy for changes to the laws governing abuse suits, and with it the specter of eye-popping settlements or judgments on damages.

On another front, with now-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick's personal history already in tatters following this summer's allegations of the ex-cardinal's abuse of at least two minors, on top of revelations of serial misconduct and harassment involving seminarians and young priests, the Jersey probe will visit another chapter of the disgraced prelate's legacy: his handling of cases as bishop of Metuchen (1981-86) and archbishop of Newark (1986-2000). At the same time, the New York inquest – its precise timespan unclear – could similarly delve into McCarrick's role in treating allegations as auxiliary bishop and priest-secretary to Cardinal Terence Cooke, by long tradition the Gotham Chancery's most powerful post after the archbishop himself.

All told, attorneys general have already opened similar investigations or reviews of historic abuse files in Illinois, Missouri and Nebraska, but even more appear likely to come. In a statement upon yesterday's dual announcements, the Pennsylvania AG Josh Shapiro – who oversaw the landmark statewide probe – said his office had received requests for information from "more than a dozen" of his peers around the country, as well as "a senior official from the Department of Justice": a revelation which hints at the staggering possibility of a national investigation, backed by the unlimited reach and resources of the federal government.

In the three weeks since Shapiro rolled out the damning findings of the two-year probe he oversaw, his office's hotline has reportedly received another 600 allegations, leading to a reconfiguration of the Attorney General's staff to handle the fresh torrent of claims.

While the bulk of the new reports have yet to be shared with the dioceses, as each of the six probed Chanceries have directly learned of new cases since the grand jury's release, last week the diocese of Pittsburgh – in terms of perception, the hardest hit locale by the Pennsylvania findings – announced the removal of three more priests amid recent allegations.


Tuesday, September 04, 2018

As some have asked, don't worry; all's fine – after a breather that was as needed as it went too quick, the scribe's in the saddle... the pieces in the pipeline just need a bit more fine-tuning.

Gratefully, as politicized white folks screaming at each other doesn't meet any credible standard of "news," not much was missed over the long weekend. If these weeks should've taught us anything, though, it's how nothing really stays the same for long.

Even more than usual, a world of thanks for your patience, prayers, support and all the goodness and encouragement so many of you have beamed in through these days in one form or another... may I know the grace to live up to it.

As always, stay tuned.