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Facing scandal and division, US Catholic bishops to hold unprecedented retreat

Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, center left, with Pope Francis in Rome in 2015. Photo by Rich Kalonick

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — The Catholic bishops of the U.S. announced Tuesday (Oct. 23) that at the behest of Pope Francis they will meet for a weeklong retreat in Chicago in January.

The unprecedented move reflects the depth of the crisis they are facing with the sexual abuse scandal and the long-standing divisions within their ranks over the broader direction of American Catholicism.

The pope is even sending an elderly and revered Franciscan priest, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, who holds the title of Preacher of the Papal Household, to lead the retreat — just as he does each year at Lent for the pontiff and the Roman Curia.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement thanking Francis for sending Cantalamessa, who is 84 and rarely travels abroad, “to serve as the retreat director as we come together to pray on the intense matters before us.”

DiNardo is currently in Rome along with other top leaders of the U.S. church, as well as more than 260 other bishops from around the world, for a monthlong meeting of global church leaders and several dozen young adults to discuss Catholicism’s outreach to youth.

The discussions at this meeting, called a synod, are a hallmark of the Jesuit pope’s preference for seeking reconciliation and solutions through common reflection and frank dialogues.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, delivers remarks on Nov. 13, 2017, at the USCCB’s annual fall meeting in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In fact, it was Francis who suggested that the entire U.S. hierarchy hold a collective retreat when DiNardo and other leaders met with him in the Vatican in September to ask for Francis’ help amid a growing crisis.

Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, who is also in Rome for the synod, will be the official host of the January retreat at Mundelein Seminary north of Chicago. He told Religion News Service in an interview Tuesday that Francis is asking them “to come together to reflect on the situation as pastors but also to find a deeper sense of our own unity with each other and with him.”

Cupich, who is seen as a strong ally of Francis in the hierarchy, said he expects all active bishops and cardinals and many retired prelates, about 250 to 300 bishops in all, to attend the Jan. 2-8 retreat.

Cupich said Pope Francis “doesn’t want us to just attack this as a technical problem.”

“This is a deeply spiritual problem, and I think that he really is on to something,” he said. “We should not be looking just at what are we to do in this moment but who are we and what are we becoming as a conference.”

Doctrinal and political conservatives had come to dominate the American hierarchy under the long pontificate of St. John Paul II and then the eight-year papacy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. But the election of Francis in 2013 after Benedict’s resignation signaled a new direction for the church, toward a more open, inclusive and pastoral approach.

Francis’ style exposed and widened divisions within the church as many conservative American prelates, lay people and Catholic media openly opposed his efforts.

Those tensions were then compounded by a series of events that began in June when Francis ordered retired Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a longtime leader in the U.S. church, to a life of seclusion, prayer and penance after the Vatican received credible reports that McCarrick had sexually abused a boy several decades earlier.

Bishops attend the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Spring Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on June 13, 2018. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

It then emerged that McCarrick also had a long history of sexually molesting seminarians when he was a bishop and archbishop in New Jersey. In July, Francis stripped him of his cardinal’s rank – a move almost without precedent – while a canonical trial continues that could lead to McCarrick’s defrocking.

In August, the findings of a two-year investigation of abuse by Catholic clergy over the past 70 years was released by the Pennsylvania attorney general. The report detailed a horrific legacy of a thousand children abused by some 300 clerics.

While almost all the abuse took place years ago, the details infuriated the flock and the public and led to this month’s resignation of the current archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, whose handling of abuse cases while bishop of Pittsburgh for 20 years was criticized in the report.

Complicating matters even further, a former Vatican ambassador, or nuncio, to the U.S., Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, has accused Francis of covering up for McCarrick, even though McCarrick – who is now 88 – had retired long before Francis became pope in 2013.

Faced with this onslaught of bad news and devastated credibility, the U.S. hierarchy has scrambled to come up with a plan of action ahead of its annual administrative meeting in Baltimore in November, which is usually a fairly routine three-day confab.

This year, however, USCCB leaders are hoping to push the bishops to approve plans for a third-party mechanism for reporting the sexual abuse of adults — along the lines of the fairly successful policies they put in place in 2002 for combating child abuse — as well as standards of conduct for bishops and policies to deal with churchmen who have resigned or been removed because of abuse.

Cupich said Tuesday that he wants the bishops at their November meeting to go even further and require that all dioceses publicly list priests and bishops credibly accused of abuse. So far only about 50 out of 190 dioceses do so.

Cupich also wants his colleagues to cede some of their zealously guarded autonomy to an independent review board of lay experts who would have the authority to investigate any bishop or cardinal accused of abuse or of covering up for abuse.

“I think we have to take action,” the cardinal said. “We are at a watershed moment. We have to deal with the issue of accountability, accountability of bishops, that has to happen. … We have to do everything possible to understand that this is a watershed moment, that accountability is key, that nobody is exempt.”

Cupich said there have always been differences among bishops, just as there are divisions within the wider American church.

“What’s important is that we let the differences be expressed, for one thing, but also that we are willing to learn from each other, realizing that not any of us has the total answer,” he said. “We do need to find a pathway together.”

Correction: A previous version of this story reported, citing Cardinal Cupich, that Pope Francis had written to the American bishops. The story has been updated to note that Cupich was referring to letter sent by Cardinal DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. RNS regrets the error.

(David Gibson, a former national reporter for Religion News Service, is director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture.)

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By David Gibson


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  • If the retreat were going to be led by Marie Collins or Tom Doyle, then it might be of some importance. The retreat is going to be held in a city where the Church is closing schools and closing parishes. Prophetic.

  • Well I hope someone speaks of the elephants in the room pertaining to the obvious fact that all of them, ALL, have done a rotten job spiritually, temporally, with regards to abuses and their coverup. They need to remove those who abuse and those that enabled. However, I get the feeling that they think they are so right about what they have done and are doing, that this will bring little enlightenment with no real epiphanies we are all hoping for.

  • Of course they aren’t. That is exactly the point. The Holy Spirit needs to start kicking butt.

  • It’s long past time that a collar or title of Reverend gets criminals and their enablers a pass on prison. The sooner the RCC is brought to account, the better. The world will not be worse off for its demise.

  • Actually, it’s not a title, it’s an honorific. The title would be the position to which they are ordained, such as bishop. The honorific for most bishops is, the Right Reverend or the Most Reverend. For a priest it is usually the Reverend.

  • Amusing that this will be across the street from my old high school. It would be quite fun as a Catholic news nerd if all the national religious press decided to hang out on the North Shore during the beginning of January. A few observations for people unfamiliar with the area – Mundelein is very Latino, St. Mary’s chapel on campus attracts some quite ultra-conservative types for its Sunday Masses (lots of Catholic Duggar types complete with women in frumpers and chapel veils and also the Mass is partially in Latin), and Libertyville is quite a nice town which has developed a cool restaurant/ bar culture.

  • First on the agenda:

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the “bowers”, kneelers” and “pew peasants” are converging these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, bishops, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of “worthless worship” aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

  • The bloom is of the rose for bishops. If any continue to act arrogantly they will be called out, not given a pass. The “prestige” most of them crave is now shaky. They will have to earn respect. If the Spirit were truly active at this retreat many of them would resign. But they will follow the example of politicians, where in most cases even gross violations of integrity do not lead to resignations.

  • In the last couple days, Virginia and Washington DC announced investigations into RCC diocese child abuse and cover-ups. There are now 13 states and the District conducting probes.

    If the RCC wants to survive in the US, its only hope is to completely come clean. Open every document and record to the attorneys general. Prepare for prelates to go to prison. If molesters or obstructors have been transferred to the Vatican, either secure extradition or refer to the ICC.

  • “its only hope is to completely come clean”

    Right now, the Vatican is protecting Ladaria. If they continue to protect him, that tells us that they have no real intention, whatever they say, to voluntarily clean up their mess.

  • .
    this is it.
    I am giving my Bishop, Armando Ochoa, one last chance to come clean.

    What’s so darn hard about doing the right thing, anyways ?

    He could have led the entire US Catholic Church toward the Light.
    But he hesitates.

  • .
    Bishops cannot fix a problem they cannot see.

    They need to follow the lead of lay people on this.
    They have gone so far away from Jesus,
    they need to be shown the way back.

    I wonder if even one Bishop today can even hear Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

  • .
    the joke’s on you.

    If the Catholic Church comes to terms with this,
    takes care of those who were harmed;
    holds the enabler Bishops accountable; and
    gets the abusers charged with crimes,
    the Church will blossom.

    If the Church can figure out what to do about homosexual priests
    (I think most are good priests,)
    then even better.

    But the Bishops are fighting to destroy the Church,
    and don’t understand the consequences of their gross malfeasance.
    They are too enamored of the trappings of their offices.
    And badly misunderstand the proper role of reconciliation and forgiveness with regard to the sex abuse.

  • Or to put it another way, the Holy Spirit needs to start agreeing with you.

    That seems rather unlikely.

  • In my own parish and diocese the relationship between Catholics and their bishop is completely unimpaired, attendance is climbing, and people understand that a few bad apples are appalling but not the whole story.

  • For those unfamiliar with the reference, Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer SJ is a Spanish Jesuit, theologian and a cardinal of the Catholic Church. He is Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

    Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, is facing trial in early 2019 for allegedly failing to denounce a sexually abusive priest.

    Luis Ladaria Ferrer is a named co-defendant.

    Barbarin denies wrongdoing.

    A summons issued to Cardinal Ladaria has been disregarded.

    The French authorities looked into the allegations some years ago and closed the case for lack of evidence.

    Using a unique provision in French law the ‘La Parole Libérée’ (The Liberated Word), a “victims” association, pursued the charges in a “private prosecution”.

    Nadia Debbache, lawyer for the victims and a member of an international organization which attacks the Catholic Church in multiple countries and venues, accuses the Vatican’s lack of response to the summons of obstructing of French justice. The French judicial authorities have demonstrated no interest at all in the prosecution or the summons.

    Ladaria was not in France during the alleged events cited in the prosecution of Barbarin. Debbache cites as her nexus a letter in 2015 from Ladaria, then secretary of the CDF in the Vatcian City, to Barbarin as grounds for the summons. Similar attempts by American lawyers to issues summons to members of the Curia have similarly elicited no response and no support from the American judicial system.

    Eymeric Molin, defense lawyer, argued that “This is turning into a soap opera. It’s enough!” while successfully arguing for the trial to go ahead without Ladaria.

    In summary the legal system, not the Vatican, is “protecting” Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer from what is clearly a fishing expedition and a scurrilous “prosecution”.

  • I wonder if you can even see past the end of your own nose. Most bishops are doing wonderful work, that’s precisely why you don’t know their names.