In November, an instruction from the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops prevented U.S. bishops from voting on a raft of proposed measures aimed at increasing episcopal accountability – reforms which would have addressed many of the gaps left by the non-adoption of Come una madre in the first place.
The move left many frustrated but, on Monday, Cupich called the Baltimore measures “problematic” and said he did not believe they would have been adopted even if a vote had taken place.
Cupich floated an alternative proposal of his own during the Baltimore meeting. Reportedly drafted in concert with Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Cupich's plan would rely upon existing structures within metropolitan provinces, instead of the creation of an independent national body to oversee complaints against bishops.
Both the original proposals and the so-called “metropolitan model” were turned over to a special USCCB committee for further study, and are expected to be discussed again in more detail when the bishops next meet, in June of this year.
Despite the Baltimore setback, Cupich said, bishops’ conferences would have an important role to play in the future.
“The Holy Father does want episcopal conferences to take responsibility, that was never a question, but we have to do it in such a way that we work together with each other -- that is part of synodality -- that is part of the collegiality that this conference wanted to highlight,” Cupich said Monday.
What role this will be remains to be seen and, at least so far as it extends to episcopal abuse of adults like McCarrick’s, it seems unlikely it will become much clearer during this week’s summit.
One thing the Chicago cardinal did say was that bishops have a personal responsibility to face up to.
“The Holy Father wants to make it clear to the bishops around the world, that each one of them has to claim responsibility and ownership for this problem… to make sure that people understand, on an individual basis as bishops, what their responsibilities are.”
Many commentators have noted in recent months that personal initiative and ownership have been distinctly lacking in some American bishops response to recent scandals, with many appearing to be waiting for a lead to follow, either from the USCCB or Rome.
A few have begun to take their own steps, especially after the inability to move forward as a group in Baltimore. Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore recently announced an independent reporting mechanism for accusations of sexual abuse in the archdiocese.
Other options have been discussed. It has also been proposed that the canonical role of the Promoter of Justice could be given a broader remit in diocesan child protection policy, acting as a sort of attorney general by appointment of the local bishop, but with an enhanced degree of autonomy of action.
Other suggestions that bishops could implement without having to seek higher approval have included the passage of more nuanced and detailed laws for handling escalating clerical misconduct, in the hopes of addressing problem behavior early – before an act of child abuse is committed.
Such action would also allow bishops to address the sexual abuse of victims who are not technically minors, including people in their late teenage years and seminarians. Many have noted that the current legal framework, solely reliant on an age of consent, sees a case of child sexual abuse become an instance of mere moral failure when the victim turns eighteen.
Cupich also told the world’s media that “there is a new day in terms of transparency,” and said that he hoped the upcoming summit would be remembered as a “turning point” in this regard.
It remains to be seen if this newfound commitment to transparency will extend to responding to calls for some kind of full disclosure about how Theodore McCarrick was able to rise through the episcopal ranks, despite apparent decades of complaints about his sexual abuse.
In Baltimore in November, Cupich spoke against a resolution by American bishops to encourage the Holy See to make available any documentation it could on that subject as soon as possible.
While talk at the press conference was of new days and strong messages, there is no shortage of Catholics in the United States and elsewhere already looking at this week’s meeting with a level of skepticism.
Indeed, the real challenge facing Cardinal Cupich and the other organizers may prove to be less about lowering “inflated expectations,” and more about convincing Catholics wearied by scandal that any progress made in the coming days will be meaningful.