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.