Tuesday, May 21, 2019

"Our Sorrow and Shame Do Not Define Us"


21 MAY 2019

I arrive at this almost indescribably humbling moment in my life and ministry filled with deep gratitude, immeasurable joy and unwavering confidence that the Risen Lord who has guided my every voyage will remain beside me as I begin my service to the people of God in the Archdiocese of Washington as a fellow believer, friend, and pastor.

In December 1983, in a side chapel of Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, I made a solemn promise to live in union with and in obedience to the one who occupies the Chair of Peter. I happily, readily, resolutely renew that promise today as I accept the appointment of Pope Francis to the extraordinary See of Washington.

Over the years I have come to know personally and to admire deeply the three men who have taken Peter’s place within the Church during my life as a bishop. These sentiments of affection and loyalty are borne of first-hand experience, fostered by the warmth and wisdom of these three pontiffs, each distinct yet bound together by faith and genuine love for Christ’s Church – each bearing unique gifts that have enriched us as a universal Catholic family.

Pope Francis has now summoned the Church – and by that I mean all the baptized – to leave our comfortable confines and to encounter and welcome the poor, the marginalized, and the neglected, and to place them at the very heart of Christ’s Church. Beginning today, that is my task here in the Archdiocese of Washington. I thank the Holy Father for that righteous challenge – more an opportunity – and I pledge my loyalty, respect, and fraternal affection to him once again. I proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with him as he governs and guides Jesus’ Church as a man of uncompromising faith and intractable joy. Pope Francis usually concludes his messages with the fervent request that we pray for him. I assure him of my prayers each day and I ask all of you to keep this remarkable shepherd in your prayers as well.

The Holy Father’s representative in the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, without diminishing his solemn ambassadorial responsibilities has also become a friend to our nation and a brother to the bishops of the United States. I am grateful to him as well for his guidance, his humanity, and his pervasive, infectious spirit of hope. Not only do he and I share our Church’s common mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Joy, we now also share this wonderful city, and we treasure both more than simple words can express.

Cardinal Wuerl has been and remains a cherished friend and episcopal colleague now for many years. He is, above all, a true Christian gentleman, and I thank him publicly and sincerely for his warm welcome, his gentle demeanor, his support and his affirmation.

I greet and thank the distinguished guests from the President’s Office and all of the public and elected officials here present. I warmly welcome our Ecumenical and Interfaith colleagues and friends whose attendance reminds us all of the vitally important and mutually enriching work of ecumenism and interfaith collaboration.

The laity, religious, and clergy of the Archdiocese of Washington have provided me an affectionate and embarrassingly gracious welcome. I have already come to admire and respect them as a true family of faith committed to their local Church and to their neighbors, willing and even anxious to work together to bring the Good News to the larger community and the world through word and deed. I look forward to deepening my closeness with and my love for them.

We stand at a defining moment for this local faith community – our hearts filled with hope and eagerness. The storied history of this great Archdiocese is a gift to the Church in the United States. Our recent sorrow and shame do not define us; rather, they serve to chasten and strengthen us to face tomorrow with spirits undeterred. Together, we implore the Holy Spirit to fortify us with the grace, perseverance and determination that only Christ Himself is able to provide as a gift of His Presence, Peace and Promise.

As we heard proclaimed in today’s Gospel, Jesus spent considerable time around fishermen, and with good reason! In them he found people who knew the value and the satisfaction of hard work and long days, and they didn’t shy away from either. He wisely chose His first disciples from among those who made their living on the sea, selecting individuals adept at handling their boats and nets certainly, but also at using their wits and their wherewithal to secure their often elusive daily catch. He recognized their fierce tenacity to get the job done and eventually redirected their focus from fish to families.

Jesus’ first disciples were obviously accustomed to the vicissitudes of their maritime way of life. Yet, they were not so stalwart that they were not frightened when the sea, as it so often did, began to churn. They had both a healthy respect for and a genuine fear of the power of the wind and water that pounded them. When conditions were calm, they felt secure. When the squalls came and they no longer felt in control of their situation or their surroundings, they became afraid. Life on the sea continues to serve as a worthy metaphor for us – as people of faith.

We have been tossed about by an unusually turbulent moment in our own faith journeys recently and for far too long. Waves of unsettling revelations have caused even the heartiest among us to grow fearful and perhaps even, at times, to want to panic. We too, like those frightened disciples tossed about by the wind and the waves have cried out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus’ questions to them are also meant for us: “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”

The disciples must have felt instantly embarrassed and even shamed by the Lord’s scolding that day. In their anxiety they had discounted that Jesus was literally in the boat with them. The very One who had fed the multitudes with so little, restored sight to the blind, raised His friend Lazarus from the dead. That very One was in the boat with them and, with a phrase, in a breath, He calmed the wind and the sea and He restored their composure.

While I know in my heart – and I believe that you know in your hearts as well – that Jesus is in the boat with us during tempestuous times, I confess that I don’t possess the words to put every soul at ease, to assuage every fear, to lessen every pain. But I do remind you – even as I sometimes have to remind myself – that He is here. He is here when the seas are calm, and He is here during every moment of uncertainty, anger, fear, and shame. He invites us to place our trust in Him – not in trite and easy answers or programs – but in Him and Him alone. He will calm and steady His Church not through any single minister. Rather, He wants nothing more than for us to trust Him to bring us back safely to shore and even be bolstered by the trials that we have endured. And He always does.

If indeed we are to trust more in Him and less in ourselves, we must admit our own failures. We clerics and hierarchs have irrefutably been the source of this current tempest. The entire Church must recall that we all belong to Christ first and foremost. Our dignity is not to be found in numbers, influence, or possessions – but in Him who remains with us even during the most turbulent moments of life.

I wholly take to heart Saint Peter’s admonition to the early presbyters not to lord it over those entrusted to them, but to be an example for their people. The example that I wish to set forth for you is that of a man filled with the faith, hope and joy of knowing Jesus Christ is in this boat. I want to be a welcoming shepherd who laughs with you whenever we can, who cries with you whenever we must, and who honestly confesses his faults and failings before you when I commit them, not when they are revealed.

I began this, my first homily as the Archbishop of Washington by acknowledging my gratitude and my hope. I discovered those virtues in the lives of countless people who are so dear to me. I give praise to God for my parents, Ethel and Wilton, who cooperated with God in giving me the breath of life. May they now enjoy the fullness of life. I pause in sheer appreciation and deep admiration for my beloved grandmother, Etta Mae, a woman who may have lacked any academic degrees but whose heart was filled with love, wisdom and common sense which she generously shared with my two sisters – Elaine and Claudia – and me. A brother could not have better or more loving sisters than do I.

The long list of my friends, neighbors, teachers, and mentors is too lengthy to even attempt to share. Many of them were priests and bishops who shaped me and witnessed before me what true priestly ministry could and should be.

The people of Chicago still claim me as one of their own and I gladly, proudly accept that designation. My faith family in the Diocese of Belleville helped me to discover that, tended gently with loving care, the seeds of the Church like the seeds of the earth grow hearty and strong in a variety of settings – urban, rural, and small town. The people of Southern Illinois helped form me in every facet of my episcopal ministry; indeed, it is quite simply where I learned to be a diocesan bishop, and they remain a part of every good thing I do.

And then there is the Church of Atlanta – the blessed community where I discovered southern roots, traditions, and love that have assisted in preparing me for this moment. I assure them all that there will never be a day when Georgia isn’t on my mind.

Finally, to my brother bishops, so many of whom honor this local Church by their presence and who strengthen me by their prayers and fraternity, I offer them this closing word of gratitude and respect. For nearly thirty-six years I have been a member of this episcopate, during which, like you, I have witnessed great joy and profound sorrow. I thank you, dear brothers, for your kindness and your support, which spurs me on to love and lead this new faith family with enduring devotion.

I did not begin this homily with those expressions of gratitude and love for fear that I might not be able to conclude without, well, losing it.

Today, my old and new friends, my family, my brothers, we begin a journey together on undeniably choppy seas. We are informed by Christ’s reprimand of his disciples that their fear and uncertainty were not products of the tumult around them, but of an inexplicable lack of faith in the One Who was literally right beside them. When Jesus Christ, with a phrase, in a breath, finally leads us out of this storm of our own making, may He not feel compelled to admonish us for exhibiting a collective lack of confidence in Him, but rather to be proud of the undaunted, uncompromising faith that we never lost, for the gospel makes it clear – and I believe, and you believe – that “the One whom even wind and sea obey has never left our side!”

Be assured of my prayers for you even as I ask for yours for me. May God bless our Archdiocese of Washington!


In the Capital, A "Change of Era"

WASHINGTON – Anytime one of American Catholicism’s “Big Six” posts changes hands, the moment has an outsize significance.

Yet more than any such move in recent memory, the process leading up to today has captured the wider imagination... and that was even before Rome responded with a watershed choice.

At 71, Wilton Gregory has returned to center stage to complete the job he began not only as the USCCB’s lead healer amid the crisis of 2002, but the work that stretches back to his first diocese – Belleville, where he inherited one of the nation’s first full-scale abuse eruptions in 1993. Nonetheless, even for the history of becoming the first African-American to take up one of the marquee seats of the country’s largest religious body, not to mention the intense focus on this capital church amid another season of scandals, his arrival at the helm of this 850,000-member fold is still less an exercise in damage control than it is the prospect of Pastoral Governance 101: how to lead a vibrant yet polarized people in the age of Francis and Trump.

And today, in the Stateside church’s biggest house, the master-class begins.

Sure, after an episcopal ministry that’s lasted more than half his life, all of three and a half years remain until the Pope's most significant US pick reaches the retirement age of 75. But to paraphrase a line that’s been used about the one who sent him here, five years of Wilt will arguably have more impact than 20 of practically anyone else – as one of his longtime confreres on the bench put the mood among the conference, for taking on this roiled, complex charge at this point in his run, “He is a hero to us.”

That is, again.

Against that intense yet hopeful backdrop, with eight cardinals, some 50 bishops and 300 priests set to be on hand in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – and busloads of Black Catholics coming from far afield to witness the moment – here’s a livefeed of Gregory’s Mass of Installation as Washington’s Seventh Archbishop, starting at 1.30pm Eastern:

...and to follow along, a copy of the 32-page worship aid.

As ever, more to come.


Thursday, May 16, 2019

With US' Vatican "Checkup" On Tap, The Reports Come Due

Even more than usual, the last 11 months have seen no shortage of notable stories come up, only to get washed out within hours by the latest curveball on the crisis front.

Among other instances, this happened last July when – at the start of what should've been a quiet summer weekend – a Friday night saw the first report of plans for the all-important ad limina visit of the US bishops: American Catholicism's first Roman "exam" in the age of Francis...

...yet before dawn the next morning, the announcement of Theodore McCarrick's forced resignation from the College of Cardinals – the first ouster of its kind in nearly a century – didn't just rightly take over the news-cycle, but turbo-charged it.

While the Stateside resurgence of the scandals had already been brewing for five weeks to that point – beginning from the first revelation of a credible abuse report against McCarrick involving a minor and the then-cardinal's initial suspension from ministry on June 20th – in hindsight, the extraordinary step of yanking the red hat from the now-former cleric was the moment the dam really broke, and the ferocity of the oncoming current has only increased since.

In that light, as the ad limina piece was reported with little inkling to the "perfect storm" that would quickly erupt – all the more once August's release of the Pennsylvania grand-jury report dropped a gas tank on the already-fraught situation – the ongoing inferno has served to recast the frame of the four-month visit, which begins in early November, and whose key preliminary element, the mammoth "Quinquennial Report" to the Holy See on each of the nation's 197 dioceses, is only now beginning to come due.

Always sent in thick binders – which allow for easy division of the contents among the Curial offices upon their arrival in Rome – the Quinquennials are to be received at the Washington Nunciature six months before the scheduled visits by the 15 USCCB regions. Given that timeline, the first incoming batch over these weeks will deal with American Catholicism's hardest-hit turf in this fresh round of crisis: the Northeast, stretching from Maine to the Mason-Dixon Line.

Beyond the brutal fallout of the Pennsylvania report within the state, the attorneys general of New Jersey and New York each announced statewide probes of their respective dioceses within a month of the grand-jury's release. Just as critically, meanwhile, both will soon be awash in lawsuits as "window" laws take effect, suspending the civil statute of limitations on bringing abuse claims – a tide likely to amount to hundreds of cases, to say nothing of settlements and legal costs totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And beyond the legal hurdles, the first three conference regions likewise contain some of the most destabilized and inflamed local scenes in the wake of new revelations.

All told, 16 statewide investigations have been launched from coast to coast since the Pennsylvania report, and last October's inception of a Federal probe based in Philadelphia, though initially limited to the Keystone State, is quietly shaping up to be the most sweeping of all. Still, as the figures and assessments in the Quinquennials are intended to provide a snapshot of a local reality only through the end of 2018, odds are that many, if not most of the diocesan reports will simply be unable to account for sizable challenges and shifts on the ground occurring just before a region's visit takes place, or even while it happens.

By way of example, recent days have brought another set of developments likely to impact their respective locales into the mid-term future:
  • In California – where a first "window" law in 2003 drew over $1 billion in settlements, a figure topped by Los Angeles' $660 million deal with over 500 survivors – the specter of a second halt of the civil statute has seen most of the US' largest province (five of the six Southland dioceses led by LA) adopt the out-of-court mediation program for new claims already taken up by most of the dioceses of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. For a sense of scale, even before its one-year "window" takes effect in August, the "independent reconciliation and compensation" push by the dioceses of New York State has already seen payments approaching $250 million;
  • Likewise in the nation's largest state, Attorney General Xavier Becerra has laid the groundwork for a long-expected review of the personnel files across California's 12 dioceses with last week's issuance of "hold letters" calling for each to preserve all relevant records. At least so far, the documents have solely been requested, not yet rising to the level of subpoenas or search warrants;
  • As Georgia became the latest entry among the statewide probes, Michigan's top prosecutor hinted at criminal charges stemming from her investigation in short order, likewise revealing that she's received death threats for engaging in it;
  • Just yesterday, the Chancery of the 1.4 million-member Dallas diocese became the second headquarters of a major Texas fold to be raided by local police over recent months – for unspecified reasons, the daylong operation included the presence of FBI agents;
  • And, of course, in the wake of last week's release of Vos estis lux mundi – Francis' global accountability norms for prelates accused of abuse and/or cover-up – with the new provisions set to take effect in little more than two weeks, the US church's implementation will have an early compliance-check during the ad limina itself, as well as a review of diocesan policies and procedures already in place.
To be sure, that's merely a cursory glimpse of another week in the storm, but as one senior prelate – clearly frazzled after months of onslaught – recently mused to Whispers, "You go into the office every morning and just wonder to yourself: 'What on earth will happen today?'"

Even if they tend to make for tedious reading, the Quinquennials – comprised of 22 sections, roughly corresponding to each office of the Roman Curia – provide a fascinating glimpse into the trenches of the nation's largest religious body: at least, as local leadership sees it. And though the reports are closely held as a matter of cultural habit, there is no prohibition on their public release – ergo, while there's never exactly been an outcry for them to be shared, amid the tenor of the ecclesial moment and its premium on transparency and accountability, it'd seem optimal for the dioceses to publish them in some form... still, odds are the ones most open to doing that would be the least in need of the scrutiny.

In that light, it bears noting that – aside from concerns raised by the Holy See during the visit itself (usually compiled from any complaint-mail that reaches Rome) – there is no mechanism for auditing the content of the reports. Accordingly, if any howlers pop up over the course of the next months' reading, we'll be sure to let you know.

All that said, much as the wider discourse remains oblivious about the impending pilgrimage, it won't be long before it's all you're hearing about. With that in mind – especially for those who missed it the first time – below is the initial 27 July report laying out the shape of the visit and the issues at hand, even as the crisis has come to loom ever larger over the process.

In one significant update to the original, however, it's since become understood that – as the first round of the ad limina coincides with mid-November's election of a new USCCB president and vice-president – those regions absent from the Baltimore meeting will take part in the votes in real-time at the North American College.

While that unprecedented move will insulate the voters in Rome from being ahead of or behind the curve on the progress of the ballots, considering the outsize importance of the on-site conversations among the bench over the weekend leading up to the meeting, the absence of a critical mass of the electorate from the pre-vote talks will nonetheless have some bearing on the result.

*  *  *
27 July 2018 Amid the specter of a fresh round of sex-abuse crises and a roiled summer for the American Catholic leadership, the US church is indeed set to come under the Vatican's microscope – but not due to the recent scandals.

One of the last major benches to make its ad limina visit to Benedict XVI, the USCCB will have its first Roman "checkup" under Francis beginning in November 2019 – eight years to the month since the last "quinquennial" got underway.

The summons was delivered in a late June letter from the Nuncio to Washington, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, which was circulated to the bench in mid-July.

Whispers has obtained the documents, which included a schedule that sees the bishops of Region I (New England) being received by the Pope on 7 November 2019. As has become standard, the conference's 15 regions – 14 geographic clusters of neighboring states, and one comprising the nation's Eastern-church hierarchs, spanning 197 (arch)dioceses and eparchies in all – will be making their visits in numerical order, essentially running up and down the country from the Northeast to the Northwest and Alaska, before ending with the Southeast and the eparchs.

While the pilgrimages of all the world's bishops are supposed to take place on a five-year schedule, the sheer logistics of what's now a global episcopate in excess of 5,000 members has seen the gap considerably lengthened over the last decade and a half; before the late 2011-early 2012 visit – which took six months – the 250-man US bench's prior trek "to the threshold of the apostles" had stretched over eight months of 2004. (In a notable coincidence, both visits came at the tail-end of the respective pontificates of St John Paul II and B16.)

A duty required of every bishop, the ad limina has three major facets: the prelates' prayer at the tombs of Peter and Paul (usually in the form of a Mass at each), a meeting with the pontiff, and morning or afternoon-long sessions with all of the congregations, tribunals and councils of the Roman Curia, one by one.

Over recent cycles, the latter two elements have changed considerably – where John Paul would meet individually for 15 minutes with each diocesan bishop (together with his auxiliaries) and give a speech to every group, toward the end of Benedict's reign, Papa Ratzinger began receiving the prelates in groups for an extended dialogue, and on the last US visit, the number of addresses was cut back to five: respectively, the speeches covered the topics of the new evangelization, religious freedom, sexuality and family life, education, and immigration and the unity of the church – all of them addressed to the entire conference and the nation's church at large.

For his part, Francis has almost entirely ditched the formal addresses – unless, that is, there's a critical message he'd like to make public – and his group sessions, which begin with each bishop speaking briefly about his diocese before heading into a free-form conversation, usually reach or exceed the two-hour mark. On the Curia front, meanwhile, where prelates of the past can easily recall being read the riot act by dicastery chiefs – or, alternatively, a prefect or two who dozed through the sessions – continuing a shift started under Benedict, the rounds at the offices are notably more collegial, interactive and service-oriented, with the staffs eager to offer their assistance on the visitors' concerns and advice on the relevant challenges they face at home. Of course, in light of Francis' consolidation of several pontifical councils into two super-dicasteries (Laity, Family and Life; and Human Development), the number of stops are considerably less numerous than they've been on prior visits. Still in all, the entire process normally takes a week to ten days.

*  *  *
As for the schedule, while the US' previous ad liminae would, as noted above, extend for the better part of a year, the 2019 edition is occurring on something of a lightning-round timeframe – by November's end, no less than the first seven regions are slated to be blown through, with Francis receiving the different groups every three or four days. As the Vatican doesn't accommodate national holidays outside Italy, the visits will not be suspended over Thanksgiving – on Turkey Day itself, the Pope is slated to meet with the bishops of Region VII (Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin), while others will likewise be in Rome continuing their dicastery rounds.

However, an even bigger scheduling hitch comes earlier – as the November plans conflict with the USCCB Fall Meeting in Baltimore, the timeline as given would put three East Coast regions (five provinces in all, stretching from New York to the Carolinas) in a particular bind: while a conference plenary can normally go missed by prelates without much impact, with the 2019 Fall Classic headlined by the election of the bench's next president and vice-president, it would be exceedingly difficult to hold the vote with a sizable chunk of the electorate missing. (In addition, the meeting would normally bring the bishops' final sign-off for the updated Faithful Citizenship materials on Catholics' political responsibilities with an eye to the next year's Federal elections.)

While the plenary can't be moved due to hotel contracts set years in advance, according to an op apprised of the situation, other potential remedies are already under consideration, including the possibility of swapping ad limina dates with another country's bishops – almost certainly bringing an earlier start for the impacted US groups – or an arrangement that would see the overseas USCCB members cast their votes by electronic ballot (presumably at the traveling prelates' base at the North American College) at the same time as the election takes place in the Premier See. That said, as the weekend-long private conversations around the Marriott leading up to the vote are always a decisive factor behind the making of the vice-president – the incumbent #2 traditionally being elevated to the top post – the absence of a significant number of prelates from the Harborfront would inevitably alter the dynamic ahead of the ballot, and accordingly its result.

For Francis, meanwhile, the visit will provide his most significant immersion experience to date in a national church that he arguably knows less about than any of his predecessors over the last half-century or more. Having only visited the States for the first time on his September 2015 trek to Washington, New York and Philadelphia, though Papa Bergoglio is surrounded by a formidable cadre of US advisers and confidants, Popes ranging from Pius XII and Paul VI to John Paul and Benedict had extensive firsthand experience of the country and its ecclesial profile before coming to Peter's chair, whether as diplomats, from extensive US travel – or, in Benedict's case, that and 25 years of dealing with no shortage of American figures and issues at the helm of the CDF.

As with the last few visits, however, the church Francis will hear of in depth is really a tale of two Stateside Catholicisms – a reality of constricting structures and declining, aging populations in most of the Northeast and upper Midwest, countered by the extraordinary growth and vitality of the Catholic outposts of the South and West, which now claim the bulk of the nation's 75 million faithful. Yet what's more, given the pontiff's lack of facility in English, it wouldn't be surprising if at least some of the meetings with the later regions are conducted entirely in Spanish, in which the overwhelming majority of "Sun Belt" prelates are fluent or at least conversant. Should it happen, that in itself would be a first.

In any case, while Francis has met a sizable chunk of the US episcopate either in the reception lines at his Wednesday audiences or the annual crop of rookies (his own new appointees) attending each September's "Baby Bishop School," aside from a moment of brief pleasantries with each, for all but a few prelates, the visit will make for their most extensive personal time by far with the Pope – and with the bench's constant cycle of vacancies and appointments, there's inevitably a degree of "auditioning" prospects for higher office on the pontiff's part. (On this front, by November 2019 it especially bears noting that two key Eastern archdioceses will be freshly pending new leaders, as both Cardinal Seán O'Malley of Boston and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia will have reached the retirement age of 75 over the preceding months.)

While the ad limina's theological import is as a moment of communion with the Roman Pontiff and for the bishops to recall their own role as successors of the apostles whose tombs give the moment its name, in practical terms the visit is the Vatican's preeminent exercise of accountability – a topic given fresh prominence in the wake of the now-multiple abuse and misconduct allegations raised against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Along those lines, the centerpiece of the process' managerial aspect is the preparation of the Quinquennial Report – an extensive, heavily detailed snapshot of the life of every diocese, which easily extends past 100 pages for most.

Split into 22 general sections, the Quinquennial's areas of focus roughly overlap with the topic-areas of the Curial offices – aspects like worship, ecumenism, Catholic education, the life of the clergy, religious and laity, and the care of migrants, capped by the bishop's assessment of his own ministry and the context in which he works. (Notably, among special appendices required of the US is a section on the diocese's response to abuse and its safe environment procedures.) Along these lines, as the reports generally need to be submitted to the Vatican six months ahead of the visit – and its parts are divided up among the relevant dicasteries upon receipt – it isn't unheard-of for concerns expressed to the offices by letter-writers at home to be raised during the meetings, or even, in especially grave situations, by the Pope himself.

With Francis' baseline for the bench already articulated in full detail in his 2015 address to the bishops in Washington's St Matthew's Cathedral (above), the following is a general list of major issues – among no shortage of others – likely to come up during the visit (in no particular order):
  • immigration in general, and specifically the local churches' efforts on behalf of migrants and refugees;
  • the worsening polarization of American Catholic life and the broader state and quality of the church's witness in the wider culture and the public square;
  • marriage and family life, especially their evolution in light of Amoris Laetitia and Francis' 2015 annulment reboot – on a related front, the coming visit will be the US bench's first since same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide in the Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell ruling;
  • youth ministry and outreach to the “nones,” following on the heels of this October's Synod on young people (and the Pope's major closing text for the gathering, likely to be released by the time of the visit);
  • the integration of Stateside Catholicism's rising Hispanic majority into the mainstream and leadership of the national church, and the way forward from this September's 5th Encuentro in Texas – a keen focus for Francis himself, the US fold's most significant event of 2018;
  • the US church's environmental efforts and integration of Francis' concept of "human ecology" in Laudato Si';
  • changing structures – whether consolidations of parishes and schools and how the institutional void is filled, or the church's effectiveness at engagement in a context of burgeoning "mega-parishes";
  • the core concepts of Francis' papacy – missionary discipleship, the “field hospital,” a Synodal church, "a poor church for the poor," "pastoral conversion," etc. – and how they're being applied at the local level;
  • the state of priestly vocations and formation, especially given the new Ratio Fundamentalis governing seminaries (its US adaptation still being worked out);
  • sex abuse and misconduct, as well as broader questions of accountability and transparency – including on finances;
  • clericalism and the development of lay leadership/co-responsibility at every possible level of ecclesial life;
  • priestly morale and the relationship between bishops and their priests – an especially fraught issue in some places in the post-Dallas Charter age;
  • the ongoing reception of the new Roman Missal, as well as the enhanced oversight of episcopal conferences on liturgical translations as granted by Francis in Magnum principium.
On one final note, while an op familiar with the process relays that there are no major changes to the format of the Quinquennial Report from Benedict to Francis, contrary to the headline above, the preparation of the sprawling text will need to wait a little while longer – according to the usual protocols, the data period for the figures and impressions conveyed to the Holy See normally ends on December 31st of the year prior to the visit.


Thursday, May 09, 2019

Seeking "Light," Pope Goes "Concrete": Global Norms Aim to Boost Bishops' Accountability for Abuse – And, Finally, Cover-Ups

Almost three months since February's unprecedented global abuse summit was widely judged to have ended more with a whimper than a bang in terms of its pledged "concrete" outcomes, the "missing piece" for most Western observers has arrived: a formal, mandatory, worldwide means of investigating bishops accused of sexual misconduct – and, far more critically, those alleged to have "interfere[d] with" bringing perpetrators to justice.

At Roman Noon this Thursday, the Pope published Vos estis lux mundi – "You are the light of the world" – an 11-page motu proprio that, beyond setting universal procedures to enhance the accountability of prelates, establishes a universal requirement for clergy and religious to report suspected abuse, as well as underscoring the church's responsibility to protect a person making an allegation from any sort of "prejudice, retaliation or discrimination." In another key first, the new text equates sexual acts coerced "through abuse of authority" – regardless of a victim's age – with the abuse of a minor or "vulnerable person."

Signed by Francis on Tuesday (7 May), the new norms are effective as of June 1st, and will be in force for an ad experimentum (provisional) period of three years to allow for fine-tuning before being made permanent.

While the US bishops were only alerted late Wednesday to an unspecified statement coming later today from their President, Houston's Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, as the bench was slated to vote on several procedural texts related to the abuse crisis at its mid-June plenary in Baltimore, this morning's release of new universal law – which, by definition, supersedes any local policy – has likely (and yet again) short-circuited much of the conference's efforts.

Accordingly, early indications are that much of the June 11-14 meeting's agenda will now shift to a focus on Vos estis' implementation amid the circumstances and context of the Stateside church. On a related front, with the meeting now but a month away, it bears noting that the latest drafts of the USCCB proposals – which the bench's leadership reviewed with Vatican officials during an Easter Week mini-summit – have not been circulated of yet to the membership, ostensibly with an eye to today's release and the needed adjustments in its wake.

Prior to today's rollout, Whispers obtained an advance copy of Vos estis. Among other key points in the text:
  • First, and above all, the requirements to report misconduct are twofold: here, echoing the principle voiced by the CDF's Archbishop Charles Scicluna at the summit's close, cases of abuse are treated as equally egregious to "conduct carried out by [bishops and religious superiors] consisting of actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations, whether administrative or criminal, against a cleric or religious regarding" crimes of abuse;
  • In a significant win for Chicago's Cardinal Blase Cupich (who advocated for the plan at the summit), the norms provide that the oversight of investigations by the metropolitan of an accused prelate is the standard option, unless the relevant Curial office (e.g. the Congregations for Bishops or, for Eastern hierarchs, the Oriental Churches) should determine otherwise. At the same time, however – reflecting the original USCCB proposal for a lay board to conduct investigations – a designated metropolitan may "make use of other persons" to assist in the task, with local bishops conferences given input on who they could be;
  • In a fresh provision emphasizing the import of the cases – and a premium on speed in handling them – the document stipulates that the Holy See (through the relevant congregation) must provide guidance on a local investigation (thus allowing it to proceed) within 30 days. All told, an investigation must be completed within 90 days, unless a specific exception is made;
  • Enshrining a principle that at least some in Rome viewed as foreign even as the 2002 crisis erupted in the States, Vos estis makes clear that the canonical procedures newly in force place no inhibition on the mandate to follow the applicable civil laws in each place, "particularly those concerning any reporting obligations to the civil authorities."
  • All that said, while the document lays out procedures for investigations, Francis conspicuously refrains from establishing potential penalties for prelates found culpable for the alleged acts. Here, it remains to be seen whether Vos estis will supplement or supplant Come una madre amarevole ("As a loving mother"), the pontiff's initial accountability norms from 2016, which explicitly state the possibility of a bishop's removal from office in cases of grave negligence.
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Even as some US instances might strike some folks as rife for an early use of the new norms, for all practical purposes, their first Stateside test-case is already in the books: last year's delegation by Rome of Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore to conduct an investigation of one of his suffragans, Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, following multiple reports of sexual harassment of adults by the West Virginia prelate, whose resignation was taken days after he reached the retirement age of 75.

After a probe that stretched over six months – far longer than expected – in March, Lori announced Bransfield's preliminary suspension from ministry with the Vatican's implicit consent.

A final judgment on the case remains pending in Rome; the Baltimore prelate remains as apostolic administrator of West Virginia's statewide diocese pending the appointment of Bransfield's successor.