Analysis: Their retreat accomplished, the U.S. bishops remain under siege

mundelein seminary Mundelein Seminary. | CNS photo/Bob Roller.

The Archdiocese of Chicago's Mundelein Seminary is beautiful. Set on 600 leafy acres, its buildings merge the aesthetics of the American Colonial Revival with the motifs of great Roman edifices. Its library is expansive. Its chapel is a gem. Mundelein is the kind of place that is hard to leave.

When their seven-day retreat at Mundelein ends Jan. 8, some U.S. bishops may be reluctant to leave the seminary. But if they are not eager to go home, the setting will not be the reason.

When they depart, many bishops will find their retreat did not bring an end to the siege under which they find themselves.

Once home, they will face the same questions, the same investigations, the same demand for answers that they left behind. And they will face the same impatience from Catholics across the country.

The president of the U.S. bishops' conference, for example, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, will likely face questions about his dealings with the Vatican in the lead-up to the bishops' meeting: he will be asked whether he knew earlier than he let on that the conference would not be permitted to vote on a reform package of policies that he championed.

Back in Houston, DiNardo will also face questions from county prosecutors who have accused the archdiocese of withholding evidence during a police investigation.

DiNardo will not be the only U.S. cardinal with problems when the retreat comes to an end.

After losing an auxiliary bishop to allegations of sexual abuse, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York now faces questions about why his archdiocese misrepresented a priest under investigation.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston is investigating accusations of misconduct at the seminaries in his archdiocese. Cardinal Blase Cupich faces a diocesan investigation from Illinois' attorney general.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin's Archdiocese of Newark remains at the center of questions regarding long-time archbishop Theodore McCarrick. And Cardinal Donald Wuerl, McCarrick's successor in Washington, faces continued scrutiny as he remains the archdiocesan interim leader until his successor is named.

Other bishops face allegations of misconduct or cover-up, among them Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo and Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston.

Like Dolan, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles must also address an auxiliary bishop accused of sexualy abusing a minor. And dozens of other bishops are faced with state and federal investigations into the historical and current administration of their dioceses.

The bishops did not formally discuss strategy or plans during the retreat: meals were taken in silence, recreation periods were few. But their leaders, DiNardo and Gomez, will go to Rome next month for a meeting with Pope Francis, and the heads of bishops' conferences from around the world. That summit, occasioned by the eruption last year of sexual abuse scandals in the United States, is scheduled to address the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults around the world.

Sources expect very little practical policy to come from the February summit. The meeting is expected to encourage bishops in the developing world to develop the baseline child protection protocols that U.S. bishops developed in 2002, and to engender in all participants a greater awareness of the profound harm that clerical sexual abuse can cause to victims.

As he did in his letter to the U.S. bishops at Mundelein, Pope Francis is likely to encourage the assembled bishops to greater personal conversion, and to emphasize, as he often has, the centrality of personal integrity in resolving allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct.

It is expected that a guilty verdict for Archbishop McCarrick will be announced before the February meeting, along with the likely penalty of laicization. But Vatican sources do not expect a report on the Vatican's investigation into its own documents on McCarrick to be forthcoming.

Leadership and committees of the U.S. bishops' conference continue to revise and discuss the policies they proposed in November, along with alternatives that emerged during their meeting. It is not likely that the February summit will substantially impact that work. Instead, it seems most likely that the bishops' will work on their policies and proposals until a March meeting of the conference's administrative committee, and then send them to Rome for review.

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After DiNardo was accused of not giving the Vatican enough time to weigh in on proposals before the November meeting, the bishops will want to leave ample time for back and forth with Rome before they vote at their June meeting on whatever draft policies have received an initial approval from the Vatican.

The priorities for the U.S. bishops are said to be establishing a mechanism for credibly investigating allegations of abuse, negligence, or misconduct against bishops; investigating the possibility of expanding the Church's definition of vulnerable adults to include seminarians and others under the authority of bishops, and creating protocols for bishops who are removed or resign from their posts amid scandal or allegations.

It seems likely they'll be able to accomplish some portion of those goals by the conclusion of their June meeting.

The question, of course, is whether Catholics will wait.

Among the effects of the scandal has been a much broader sense of disillusionment and disenfranchisement from Catholics than was palpable in the aftermath of 2002. It is not yet clear whether the scandals of 2018 have impacted Church attendance or diocesan financial support. And, of course, for many Catholics the anger of last summer has abated. But episcopal leadership is under a new level of scrutiny in the U.S., and voices from across the ecclesial spectrum have been unrelenting in calling for change.

Some of those voices are likely to intensify after the February meeting, at which the outcomes, and even the agenda, are not likely to meet public expectation.

Since June, the bishops seem to have been playing catch-up with a tornado. Their responses to new fronts of the crisis often seemed insincere or unconvincing. They have seemed often to have been owned by the events unfolding around them, and they frequently have been criticized for seeming to lack authenticity, contrition, and above all, leadership.

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As a result, in addition to the legitimate questions bishops have faced from Catholics and from the media, they now must also contend with a growing anticlerical populist backlash in the U.S. Church, one that seems to foster broad distrust for episcopal initiatives and the Church's governing structure, rather than on calling for or supporting reform efforts.

The retreat may well motivate bishops to address their problems with new vigor: it may have given them an opportunity to regroup, catch their breath, and emerge as the leaders that Catholics seem to have been looking for.

If they have any hope of restoring confidence in the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, the opportunity afforded to them by their retreat is one the bishops ought not miss. 

Because any practical change is likely six months away, if there is to be change in the narrative of the last six months, or if the burgeoning anti-episcopal populist movements in the U.S. Church are to lose steam, it will only be because bishops emerge renewed from their retreat, and begin to address the Church with the kind of courageous, direct, transparent, and fatherly leadership Catholics have been calling for, even in the absence of new policies. Even then, it will be an uphill battle, and will become more difficult with each passing month in which leadership is seen to be lacking.

If their retreat has had its intended effect, the U.S. episcopate may now have more spiritual health and vigor with which to lead the Church than it has had since before the crisis began. Whether they will emerge ready to take the mantle of leadership, and begin to foster healing from the Church's still-gaping wounds, remains to be seen.

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