Thursday, March 21, 2019

"Big Dance" 2.0 – Amid Beltway Traffic, "Arch Madness" Returns

If only this scribe had a dime for every time one of this readership asked about the ongoing vacancy in Washington over these weeks, Whispers would be solvent into the next Holy Year – that is, 2025.

To be sure, that's a figurative line.

Still, almost six months into the singular move that'll define Pope Francis' stewardship of the Stateside Church, the process at hand has been nothing short of fascinating.

Lest anybody forgot, again, It's. A. Process. – even now, with tensions spiking in the capital and all sorts of variables in play on the broader front, all anyone can see is a snapshot.

Nonetheless, when Rome sends lemons, the Church is called to make lemonade – and indeed, in this, the press can have a role of leadership.

In that light, given the unexpectedly long wait for the succession of two cardinals historically laid low by this season of scandal – a delay which has turned the locals increasingly impatient – keeping with the secular "holiday" at hand, a prior shining moment has suddenly found an encore....

But this time, only bigger:

As this bracket is the fruit of a boatload of context and confidences gathered over these last several months, all thanks to the Particular Congregation who've guided Whispers' reporting to this point...

Yet in the hopes of "landing the plane," as ever, the budget to get there is in your hands:


Saturday, March 16, 2019

USCCB President Suffers Stroke – As Bench VP, Gomez Given The Reins

Having soldiered through this last year carrying an unprecedented double burden – the daily life of a booming 1.8 million-member archdiocese (one currently under civil investigation) and the elected leadership of the US' largest religious body amid a season of epic crisis – Houston Chancery released the following statement at 7pm Central tonight, announcing a significant health scare for Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops:
Cardinal DiNardo was taken to a Houston hospital last night [Friday, 15 March] after experiencing the symptoms of what tests today have confirmed was a mild stroke. The Cardinal is resting comfortably and conversing with associates, doctors and nurses. It is expected that Cardinal DiNardo will remain hospitalized for a few more days of testing and observation, followed by a transfer to another facility for rehabilitation. he is grateful to the doctors and nurses for their wonderful care and for continued prayers during his recovery. Cardinal DiNardo said, "With so much to do, I am looking forward to getting back to work as soon as possible."
According to a separate statement circulated privately to the US bench and obtained by Whispers, as the USCCB by-laws provide that the bench's “Vice President ... shall have such powers and perform such other duties as may be assigned him by the President," as of tonight, DiNardo "has assigned [Los Angeles'] Archbishop [José] Gomez, as Vice President, to assist in executing the day-to-day responsibilities of the Presidency" for the period of his recovery.

In other words, for all practical purposes, the Mexican-born, 68 year-old head of the largest diocese American Catholicism has ever known is suddenly the Acting President of the US bishops – even on a pro tem basis, the first Latino ever to lead an episcopal bench north of the Rio Grande.

Just when you thought things weren't eventful enough. Then again, lest anybody forgot, this was a "joint presidency" from its outset.

*  *  *
Just shy of his 70th birthday in late May, DiNardo – the first cardinal ever created in the American South – is in the home stretch of his three-year term at the bench's helm, which'll end with the election of the new Executive in November.

Over the nearly five-decade history of the modern Stateside conference (rebooted as it was in the wake of Vatican II), not in memory has a Vice-President been called to publicly "assist" at the body's helm as Acting Chief.

Then again, as the Presidency takes at least a third of its occupant's energy in a normal time – always beginning with a first-thing hourlong call from the Washington headquarters every morning – lest anyone forgot, these days are anything but "normal."

Having served as the US bench's delegate to last month's abuse summit in Rome, DiNardo was stricken just after returning home from this past week's USCCB Administrative Committee meeting in Washington, which set the agenda for the bench's June meeting in Baltimore and its expected plan to vote on four major documents enhancing the accountability of bishops, both in terms of direct allegations against them and/or their handling of abuse cases.

As one Whispers op relayed from the Admin talks, DiNardo appeared "ashen and tired" over the two-day DC meeting, echoing weeks of concern from within his inner circle over the unrelenting workload.

When the wear-down finally caught up with him, a Houston op reports that the cardinal was presiding over a Friday night Stations of the Cross in the Cathedral he dedicated ten years ago next month (above) – a rite specifically held in reparation for the recent scandals – when DiNardo became unsettled at the Seventh Station (per tradition, the moment recalling when "Jesus Falls the Second Time") and needed to be taken out in a wheelchair.

Per early reports from Astroworld, the president is in intensive care in a local hospital; his rehab and initial recovery period will take at least six weeks, thus keeping DiNardo – head of the US' fifth-largest diocese beyond his national role – out of commission through Holy Week and Easter.

In his last major public appearance before this weekend's turn, DiNardo headlined an early February seminar at his alma mater – Washington's Catholic University of America – where the bench chief cited Pope Francis' January call to the US bishops for "a new ecclesial season" in the scandal-hit Stateside church... focusing especially on the laity's role in it:

Developing – more to come.


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

"Primates of the Gaols" – Pell’s Sentencing for Abuse Caps “Dark Age” for Red Hats

Due to a couple milestones on the horizon, the 21st century was already bound to be a moment of reflection on the long history of the College of Cardinals: coming years bring both the 1,000th anniversary of the codification of the group's role as the electors of a Pope, and half a millennium since the first meaningful attempt to internationalize the body, a distinct shift from its roots in the early assembly of the pastors of Rome's churches.

Now, however, this age has made some epochal history of its own: in ways unknown since the scandal-ridden days that would spur a Reformation, "princes of the church" have cast a public cloud over the Catholic scene. What's unique this time, though, is the public punishment being meted out upon them, in ways that would've been unthinkable even as the calendar hit 2000.

Capping a seismic month that began with the first dismissal of a once scarlet-clad figure from the priesthood in modern times – then brought an unprecedented conviction in civil court of another cardinal on charges of a cover-up – Cardinal George Pell, the most influential Australian in the history of global Catholicism, was sentenced this morning to a jail term of six years following his December conviction on five counts of assaulting two minors in the 1990s.

Until recently the Vatican's first Finance Czar with a mandate to carry out broad fiscal reforms – and before that the head of Australia's two largest archdioceses in Melbourne and Sydney – Pell's sentence fell far short of the maximum 50 years the 77 year-old prelate could've faced.

Already remanded to a Melbourne prison last month on the revocation of his bail, the cardinal – by far the highest-ranking cleric (indeed, the first bishop) ever to be convicted and jailed on abuse counts – has resolutely maintained his innocence, and outrage over the lead conservative's conviction has become a cause celebre among Pell's ideological allies worldwide. Though an appeal is to be heard in early June, the narrow parameters of Australian high court proceedings have borne out a healthy amount of skepticism as to whether the attempt will prove successful.

Should his appeal fail, Pell could be eligible for parole in 44 months on good behavior.

In a rare move underscoring the history of today's event, the chief judge of the Victoria court who presided at the hourlong hearing allowed for it to be broadcast, but with a single camera barred from filming Pell in the dock or panning around the courtroom.

Via the state broadcaster ABC, below is the full hearing, which included a lengthy recounting of the graphic evidence presented at trial:

As previously reported, following the publication of Pell's conviction last month upon the lifting of a gag order banning media coverage in Australia, the Vatican announced that a canonical investigation of the abuse charges has already been opened by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as well as revealing that the cardinal had been suspended from all ministry since returning home to face the counts in mid-2017.

*  *  *
Coming as it does on the sixth anniversary of Pope Francis' election, today's sentencing underscores the towering challenge facing the pontiff and church alike as the global crisis continues to expand both in its breadth and scope.

With Pell now jailed and Theodore McCarrick laicized, a third eruption requiring Rome's full response arrived last week from France, where Cardinal Philippe Barbarin – the "Primate of the Gauls" as archbishop of Lyon, the country's oldest diocese – was convicted on failing to report allegations against one of his priests to the civil authorities on learning of them in 2014.

In the wake of Thursday's verdict and its suspended sentence of a six-month jail term – which reportedly took observers at the trial, and even its prosecutors, by surprise – the 68 year-old prelate (above, in court) announced that he would fly to the Vatican to present his resignation to Francis.

While that visit has not yet taken place, one of Barbarin's auxiliaries, Bishop Emmanuel Gobilliard, subsequently relayed that the cardinal had already decided to leave office regardless of the trial's result, having reached the conclusion that "the diocese has suffered too much" due to the court scrutiny.

Even should he resign as archbishop, however, the Barbarin verdict would appear to provide the first test-case of the principle articulated at the close of February's Vatican abuse summit by the CDF's Archbishop Charles Scicluna: namely, that an understanding of cover-up as being "equally egregious" to abuse was to be "a very clear point in church policy" going forward.

By that standard, a cardinal found to have shown grave negligence in handling abuse cases would ostensibly be subject not merely to resigning his diocese or Curial post, but losing his seat and title in the College, and even his ability to function in ministry altogether – an outcome which, with McCarrick having become the first ex-cardinal in a century last year, has never occurred on the grounds of cover-up.

As Barbarin would otherwise enjoy the right to elect a Pope until 2030, that fresh precedent would be especially significant.


Monday, March 11, 2019

In "Almost Heaven," The Hammer Falls – With Rome's Consent, WV Probe Ends With Bishop's Suspension

As the leadership of the US bishops inches toward a partial embrace of Cardinal Blase Cupich’s “metropolitan proposal” for investigating allegations against prelates, the lone test-case for the likely national setup has come in for a landing both successful and brutal all at once.

In a release made from Baltimore with the Vatican's implicit approval, early this morning Archbishop William Lori announced a formal suspension from ministry of Bishop Michael Bransfield (above), who was quickly removed from the helm of West Virginia’s diocese of Wheeling-Charleston days after turning 75 last September amid serial allegations of sexual harassment of adults.

Tapped by Rome to oversee the statewide diocese during the vacancy, Lori – who, as Bransfield’s metropolitan, was approached with the allegations from several individuals last summer – was likewise tasked by the Holy See with conducting a preliminary investigation into the reported misconduct.

Despite initial hopes of completing the probe by Christmas, the process – conducted by an all-lay group and overseen by a former state-level prosecutor – produced sufficient evidence that the panel's work wasn’t able to wrap up until early February, uncovering significant financial impropriety along the way, on top of substantiating the charges of the bishop's sexual misconduct.

While officials maintain that no evidence of crimes was discovered in the review, according to a Whispers op close to the process, the findings against Bransfield proved so overwhelming that, within days of receiving the final report in mid-February, Lori made an emergency trip to Rome to brief senior Vatican officials in person on the outcome.

As hinted here at the time, today’s announcement could be clearly foreseen last month, when the Wheeling church moved to strip Bransfield’s name from both a high-school gym and a new wing of the diocese’s lead Catholic hospital.

Over his 14-year tenure, the now-suspended prelate – long one of the global church’s top financiers – spent heavily to invest in Wheeling’s church infrastructure, a largesse aided by the West Virginia diocese’s status as one of American Catholicism’s wealthiest outposts thanks to its century-old bequest of a Texas oil field, the revenues from which have left the 125,000-member diocese with cash reserves stretching into nine figures (i.e. over $100 million).

While the limits of Lori’s authority mean that, for now, Bransfield’s suspension extends solely to the archdiocese of Baltimore and his now-former diocese, with the findings before the Holy See, current projections anticipate that a relatively brief administrative process in Rome will affirm the conclusions of the Wheeling investigation and bar the bishop from all ministry on a universal level.

Though several US prelates have resigned and lived in a de facto state of removal from ministry upon earlier revelations of misconduct with adults, a public decree and sanction against Bransfield from the Vatican would be the first such move of its kind in a case not involving minors.

On another front, given the significant precedent of last month’s findings against the dismissed cleric Theodore McCarrick, once a cardinal and archbishop of Washington – and long a close Bransfield ally – it’s at least possible that the misconduct charges could end up before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which previously restricted itself to allegations involving children, until adding accusations from adults (in light of the "abuse of power") into its determination of the graviora delicta ("grave crimes") that warranted McCarrick's watershed removal from the priesthood.

With the investigation concluded, only now can the search for Bransfield’s permanent successor begin – as with last week's quick move on Memphis, however, the misconduct probe will go a long way toward the first and longest part of every appointment search: Rome’s consultation on the state of the diocese. As the Vatican is already well-aware of the gravity of the Wheeling situation, and considering Lori’s taxing shuttle-duty between Baltimore and West Virginia, it wouldn’t be surprising to have the latter’s new bishop emerge by the beginning of the summer recess in late June.

In a separate yet related development, the allegations against Bransfield spurred West Virginia's Attorney General Patrick Morissey to announce that the claims against the bishop "warrant a close review" following the September disclosure.

While US civil authorities have launched some 15 statewide investigations – and at least one Federal probe – over recent months, in West Virginia's case, no developments since Morissey's initial statement have yet come to light.

* * *
On the national scene, meanwhile, measures and protocols to enforce the accountability of bishops and investigate allegations against them will be center stage this week in Washington as the USCCB Administrative Committee convenes on Tuesday morning for its first meeting of the year.

In keeping with post-summit comments made by the bench’s president, the likely focus of the three-day agenda will be the means by which Cardinal Daniel DiNardo’s earlier push for lay-led review of accusations of prelates can be worked into a “hybrid” with Cupich’s “metropolitan plan,” which the Chicago cardinal presented before Francis – clearly with the Pope's approval – in his keynote at last month's abuse summit in Rome:

The canonical fine-points of the mash-up still being ironed out, the result is slated to be one of four separate documents to be voted on by the bench at its June plenary in Baltimore, each of which will ostensibly need a two-thirds margin for approval and recognitio (confirmation) by the Holy See.

Notably among the other pending texts is another stab at a protocol first attempted at last November's plenary – guidelines for the restriction of bishops found to either have abused or shown grave negligence (read: cover-up) in their response to cases. The earlier draft of that document was pulled from consideration even before Rome's short-circuit of all the other votes was made known in the first minute of the last general meeting, to the shock of all but a handful of attendees.

All that said, for the immense focus the November meeting and last month's summit received in American media, the even more critical Vatican event in terms of the US' crisis response isn't coming until late this year – the ad limina visit of the Stateside church, first reported here last July, which'll see each of the nation's 198 dioceses placed under Rome's microscope from November into February 2020.

The US' first Vatican exam since Francis' election six years ago this week, the massive Quinquennial Reports detailing the state of each diocese are already being prepared in every Stateside Chancery. While some of the travel dates for the USCCB's 15 regions might still be moved due to mid-November's election of the bench's next President and his deputy, the diocesan reports are due six months ahead of its respective bishop's scheduled visit.


Tuesday, March 05, 2019

At Graceland, "Taz"-mania – Capping US Hat Trick, Pope Sends "Whirlwind" To Memphis

(Updated with presser video.)

Moving quickly to remedy the damage of a disastrous tenure that left West Tennessee's Catholic community wounded and reeling, the Pope has unleashed the most potent option to heal and restore the diocese of Memphis – and to get cracking with all possible speed.

At Roman Noon this Tuesday, Francis named Bishop David Talley (right), 68 – the "hyper-relational," Atlanta-born head of Louisiana's Alexandria diocese since 2016 – as 6th bishop of the 70,000-member fold on the banks of the Mississippi: a vibrant, tight-knit church with an extraordinary record of activism and service.

And to be sure, that's just one of three marquee moves for the day: elsewhere, the Pope tapped LA Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Brennan, 65 this month, as bishop of Fresno – the outpost covering the lower third of California's Central Valley, now home to 1.2 million Catholics...

...and in just the latest nod to the US church's burgeoning Asian presence, Msgr Alex Aclan, 68 – Filipino-born, and until recently LA's clergy personnel chief – will take Brennan's place as an auxiliary of American Catholicism's flagship diocese, heading up one of Los Angeles' five pastoral regions, each of which comprise over a million faithful.

With Aclan's appointment, the bishop-elect – ordained a priest at 42 after a career as a computer programmer – becomes just the second Filipino ever named to the Stateside bench, and the second Asian priest overall to join the hierarchy within the last 18 months.

While Francis' all-important choice of an archbishop of Washington still hangs like a sword over the rest of the docket, it bears noting that today's trio of moves represents the US' fullest slate of appointments since the latest national round of abuse scandals broke last summer.

*  *  *
An adult convert of Southern Baptist roots, his dual background as a social worker and canon lawyer  unique among the US bench, the new Memphis prelate – famously dubbed "The Tazmanian Devil" at one of his parishes for his usual whirlwind activity – arrives at Graceland as a unifier with a mammoth degree of regard across all sorts of divides.

Indeed, whether from his 1990s housemates at the Casa (the Roman base for American priest grad-students), onetime parishioners in the booming Atlanta suburbs, Chancery co-workers or the national scene he's now been part of for six years, all you'll ever hear when Talley's name comes up is affection on steroids – a reputation perhaps best summed up by the sense that, as several of his collaborators have noted over time, losing him to another assignment brought the difficult realization of how he could never be fully replaced.

Along those lines, much as it'll come as no surprise to those who know him, now it can be told that Talley's name has figured at high levels over recent months as a stealth prospect for the opening in the nation's capital. Even more than the optic of a down-home convert cleric in a rumpled suit and tab-shirt would've struck an immediate, glaring contrast with the cool refinement of the embattled Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Talley's personal history as a state-employed social worker assigned to help abused children in Atlanta's housing projects – the work he was doing as he discerned entering seminary – wouldn't just have made for a deeply evocative story, but provided a rare skill-set for tackling the local nexus of what's become American Catholicism's deepest national crisis in two centuries.

Instead, however, a smaller crucible came calling, but a crucible nonetheless.

In a tenure that barely lasted two years, Bishop Martin Holley's aloof, deference-heavy style of governance brought the Memphis church to the point of near-implosion – a collapse first staved off by a rare Apostolic Visitation to investigate the situation (and comfort the locals), then halted last October with the 64 year-old prelate's forced removal from office by the Pope, a first for a US bishop in modern times. (Not to be outdone, the booted prelate subsequently took to EWTN in a bizarro attempt to defend himself, terming his opposition "racist" – despite the fact that his widely well-regarded predecessor of a quarter-century, Bishop Terry Steib, was likewise African-American.)

Named administrator by Rome upon Holley's ouster, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville – whose province includes Tennessee – has garnered universally high marks among the Memphians as a healing and calming presence who's done much to prop up the roiled scene. Still, with the former USCCB president having to drive five hours each way to juggle two dioceses, the effort hasn't been easy. Accordingly, since the summer 2018 Visitation served as the consultation on the state of the diocese – the first and longest stage of an appointment process – that and a desire to ease Kurtz's daunting workload combined to produce a permanent successor in rapid time.

According to a Whispers op involved in the process, Talley was the archbishop's emphatic first choice. Yet even as both Kurtz and his new suffragan share a common background in social-work, the identikit of Memphis' new bishop is a remarkably tailored fit to respond to the three overarching issues that Holley's tenure blew open.

Beyond coming as a booster-shot and fix-it man for a people languishing under low morale – albeit on a lesser scale, the same reason he was sent to Alexandria – Talley's sizable experience in handling clergy personnel matters recalls Holley's explosive decision to arbitrarily reshuffle some two-thirds of Memphis' priests (including some close to retirement) within a year of his arrival: that is, the moment most frequently cited as the initial salvo of the diocese's immersion in tumult. What's more, meanwhile, the incoming bishop's well-burnished community work directly hearkens back to the biggest outcry stoked by his now-predecessor: Holley's move to shutter the diocese's Jubilee Schools – the nine inner-city elementaries funded by a coalition of civic and corporate groups that've provided an alternative to Memphis' public schools since 1999.

Hailed as one of US Catholic education's great success stories of recent decades – and seen locally as a catalyst for furthering racial reconciliation and the common good in the city where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated – Holley's ax to the Jubilee Schools (reportedly due to his distaste for serving non-Catholic students) caused shockwaves across the wider church. With the schools under agreement to be spun off to a charter-school provider after this academic year, an op close to the situation relays that an attempt to reverse the arrangement would be futile at this point. In any case, though, Taz being Taz, it's a safe bet that the new bishop will come up with some new push to ensure and enhance the church's ongoing mission and presence in the struggling city – if he hasn't figured it out already, give him 'til noon.

On top of the lingering threads in Holley's wake, the interregnum has brought a pair of fresh challenges. First, local ops report that, while a broad aversion to the now-removed bishop managed to unify sparring factions in the Memphis church, Holley's departure – and the vacuum of long-term leadership it created – has resulted in a distinct spike of tensions between ideological camps over the course of the vacancy.

In addition, as dioceses across the US race to publish historic lists of their credibly accused clerics, last month's disclosure from the diocese of Richmond ricocheted to Memphis as the latter's founding bishop, Carroll Dozier, was listed among abusive priests who worked in Virginia, where Dozier was born and served from 1937 until 1971, when St Paul VI chose him to establish the West Tennessee fold.

While Richmond's entry on Dozier as being accused solely noted that the allegation was received after his death in 1985, a conspicuous lack of reaction from the diocese he founded is said to have rattled, if not infuriated, at least some of the Memphis faithful, all the more given the exalted standing with which the founding bishop is held there.

Featured on a city mural among local icons of the civil rights movement (above left), Dozier – whose 12-year tenure first charted the diocese's penchant for social-justice – is buried under a side-altar inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the tomb topped by kneeling angels sculpted in marble.

A notoriously early riser known to be at his desk by 5am, Talley will be presented to his new charge by Kurtz at a 10am Central press conference. As of press time, an installation date remains unknown.

As ever, more to come... and just remember, when this scribe says it'll be busy, believe it.

SVILUPPO: His opening statement here, below you'll find Talley's full Q&A on his debut before the Memphis crowd – the installation is set for Tuesday, 2 April, its site yet to be determined.