Thursday, June 06, 2019

Coming Soon: "High Noon," Part 2

As if the run-up to next week's USCCB plenary in Baltimore wasn't tense already, a round of fresh stories over the last 48 hours – capped by a brutal Washington Post report detailing the six-month investigation into West Virginia's quickly-retired and now-suspended Bishop Michael Bransfield – has thrown a new batch of fuel and focus onto the bench's attempt to finish the job they hoped to accomplish last November, until being thwarted by Rome: the final passage of enhanced accountability protocols for prelates accused of abuse or grave negligence in the handling of cases.

Granted, that's a long sentence... but, well, it's been a long year. And if recent days have served as a reminder that, even at its 12-month point, this cycle of the abuse crisis hasn't lost its ability to shock, well, don't expect that to let up over the short-term road ahead.

That said, much as the new disclosures – including the revelation of over $10 million in lobbying fees spent by Northeastern dioceses in the hope of keeping civil statutes of limitation intact – have added to the drama and pressure surrounding the four-day Baltimore meeting, the substance of the plenary's agenda hasn't yet been reported in depth....

Until now.

According to drafts of the major documents obtained by Whispers, despite significant calls across ideological lines in the wider church for an ample lay role to be assured in investigating prelates, the proposed US adaptations for Pope Francis' new accountability norms do not mandate a place for non-clerics in the processes, merely recommending that a delegated investigator – chosen by the metropolitan archbishop overseeing a probe – "can make use of other proven experts... chosen predominantly from among lay persons" in performing the task.

An almost wholesale adoption of the "metropolitan plan" successfully argued for by Chicago's Cardinal Blase Cupich and now executed by Francis, the proposed USCCB tweaks for the domestic implementation of Vos estis lux mundi – which entered into global force last weekend – have summarily ditched the conference's initial design for a national lay panel to oversee allegations and make final recommendations on cases involving bishops.

As the push for lay-led reviews was nixed by Rome last fall, an attempt earlier this year by the bench's leadership for a "hybrid" model that would combine the metropolitan's role with an in-built collaboration of newly-charted regional review boards is likewise absent from the draft "Directive" being presented to the 250-odd voting prelates for their approval. In its place is a clause that a metropolitan is "highly encouraged" – yet by no means bound – to choose from a list of persons previously approved by his province to aid in handling top-level cases.

On another salient front, the draft does not obligate a metropolitan to inform a complainant of the Holy See’s decision on the outcome of an investigation, but simply suggests that the archbishop “may inquire whether and how” he might inform the accuser of the result, with that determination being made by the relevant Curial dicastery.

Of course, drafts like these are virtually certain to be heavily amended by the body of bishops before their final debate and passage. Nonetheless, the starting provision for laity as optional assistants chosen by and under the supervision of the relevant investigating archbishop is especially significant. (While it's fairly standard that most of the bishops don't start poring over a meeting's proposed texts and agenda until the weekend before a plenary, it's a pretty safe bet that some have already taken to sharpening buzz-saws to criticize the proposed setup.)

Together with a redo of November's delayed protocols to allow for restricting the ministry of retired bishops accused of abuse of adults or covering up cases – a lacuna not addressed by either the Dallas Charter or Vos estis (which pertains solely to reports against active hierarchs) – and other items, each of the accountability documents require a two-thirds vote in favor to pass.

In that light, two things bear noting: first, November's drafts garnered such broad skepticism or disagreement over the specifics that, in hindsight, a consensus quickly came to realize that the texts wouldn't have garnered the needed supermajority at that time; and with it, while summer meetings traditionally have a high level of absent bishops, this one will likely be a "full house" given the matters at hand, but no firm turnout can be gauged until everyone is in place.

In another crisis-related item, the bench is to vote on a joint statement called "Acknowledging Our Episcopal Commitments" which, toward its close, contains this striking passage:
We realize that too often, some bishops have acted more as administrators than as pastors. In his personal letter to the U.S. bishops in January 2019, Pope Francis reminded us that the consequences of our failures cannot be fixed by being administrators of new programs, or new committees. They can only be resolved by self-examination, humility, and conversion. It is our hope that by acknowledging what the Word of God and the Church expects of us, we will continue our efforts in regaining the trust of the people of God.
On one last top-line front, the bishops are slated to discuss and decide on the establishment of a national third-party hotline to receive allegations.

As the setup's projected $1 million cost has caused at least some sticker-shock among the prelates, we'll see what happens.

* * *
Beyond the Floor business which starts Tuesday morning, the broader scene along the Inner Harbor will be a moment of taking stock.

If anything, look at it this way – of the 12 Stateside dioceses which claim Catholic populations larger than 1.3 million, all but two are currently under some kind of investigation or review by civil authorities. While some of these have been charted at the municipal or county level, last week saw Iowa become the 18th US jurisdiction to open a statewide probe since last August's release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. And none of these include the Federal investigation opened last October which, for the time being, is understood to remain limited to Pennsylvania's seven dioceses and two eparchies, but can expand at any time.

On another front, with the USCCB's first ad limina report to the Vatican in nearly eight years – its first to Francis – beginning in November, the conference faces a "Quo vadis?" moment in terms of its wider direction.

In other words, the background of next week's talks will serve as a gut-check on the state of the bench and its needs ahead of this fall's election of the bishops' next President and his deputy. Normally this would take place in the run-up to the November voting but, as previously reported, a sizable chunk of prelates will be absent from that meeting due to the ad limina, casting their votes in real-time from Rome. (And of course, all this doesn't include the prospect of another round of protests outside over these coming days.)

All that said, while it's obviously Whispers' intent to be in Baltimore for the meeting, as things stand, the budget is preventing this scribe from pulling it off... and lest anyone forgot, no budget = no content.

Ergo, as ever, the only way it can happen is thanks to your support:

If there was ever a time when radio silence wouldn't be so good, this is it.