Making their task especially difficult is that Gregory was conference president from 2001 to 2004, and presided over the bishops' conference response to the sex abuse crisis of 2002. Gregory was the bishop who ushered into being the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" and the accompanying "Essential Norms."
While the Charter is widely thought to have changed ecclesial culture for the better with regard to child and youth protection, it has been panned during the last year because it is understood to pertain to priests and deacons only, using language that explicitly delineates the exclusion of bishops from some norms.
The shortcomings of the "Dallas Charter," are not Gregory's fault, but bishops who want to convey that the Church is moving on from "business as usual" may be reticent to elect as president someone so directly connected to the Charter.
There is also Gregory's task in Washington. The archbishop is 71, and is largely understood to have only a four-year mandate to begin the process of restoring trust among Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington, which has been the epicenter of the McCarrick affair, through which Gregory's predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, lost a great deal of trust among his priests, and among ordinary Washington Catholics. This task, Gregory is known to understand, will require a considerable investment of personal and pastoral time, and for that reason, the archbishop may not find the prospect of running the bishops' conference a temptation.
But if he does want the job, there is at least one thing Gregory could do to improve his chances of being elected: He could release from the Archdiocese of Washington's files on Theodore McCarrick as many records as possible, and encourage other diocesan bishops to do the same. Gregory has the opportunity in Washington to establish a new paradigm of transparency in Church governance – a paradigm much discussed but not yet much demonstrated – by releasing as much as possible on McCarrick, his finances, his friends and protectors, and then encouraging the other dioceses where McCarrick served to do the same.
While Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark told CNA this week that he is precluded from issuing a full report on McCarrick by an attorney general's investigation in the state, Gregory has not indicated that he is under any similar restriction. A comprehensive release of information from his archdiocese would do a great deal to restore confidence in Church leadership among practicing Catholics, and it would likely raise esteem for him considerably among the younger bishops in the conference, who have been calling for just such a release from Rome.
If that does happen, Gomez could face more of a challenge for election as conference president than expected.
Who will be elected vice president?
Some bishops have mentioned to CNA that Tobin could be a natural candidate for the position.
The Archbishop of Newark is affable and friendly to other bishops, well-known, and articulate. He has the experience of leading his own religious community, the Redemptorists, of a senior leadership position at the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life at the Vatican, and has led archdiocesan sees in both the Midwest and on the East Coast. As chairman of the USCCB Committee on Consecrated Life, Clergy, and Vocations, Tobin has played a prominent role in the Church's response to the McCarrick crisis, and he presented one of the major policy documents on sexual abuse approved by the bishops at their November meeting.
The cardinal, in short, has considerable experience and qualifications that seem relevant to a leadership position at the conference.
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But even if he were nominated as a candidate, Tobin might not accept the nomination. The cardinal withdrew from participating in the October 2018 synod on youth, which came just a few months after the McCarrick scandal began. At the time, Tobin recognized the havoc wrought by the McCarrick revelations on his archdiocese, which McCarrick led for more than a decade, and he explained the priority he placed on being present to the people of his own archdiocese, and especially to his priests.
Tobin is a cardinal, which means that he already has responsibilities taking him to Rome with regularity. Given his clear aversion to becoming an "airport bishop," the cardinal might decline the possibility of adding even more frequent trips to Washington, DC to his schedule, especially as his archdiocese will soon grapple with fallout from the New Jersey attorney general's investigation, and from the eventual release of Rome's report on McCarrick.
If he were to stand for election, Tobin would face both episcopal support and criticism for his endorsement of "Building a Bridge", a 2017 book by Fr. James Martin, SJ, who is a frequent writer and speaker on the topic of Church engagement with those who identify themselves as LGBT or LGBT activists. Bishops are divided on how best to approach that kind of engagement, and Martin's work is at the center of that divide, because some bishops say that Martin's work is not faithful to the teachings of the Church, while others actively promote it. While some bishops might be reticent to support a Tobin candidacy because of this, others would take Tobin's position as a positive sign in the conference.
Tobin's work on the U.S. implementation of Vos estis lux mundi is appreciated by bishops, as is his work on revisions to the national directory for deacons. But during the last year, Tobin has been the subject of rumors and questions about his personal life from some blogs and websites. The cardinal has denied rumors of misconduct, and scant evidence has turned up to support conjectures made about him. It is unlikely that Tobin would allow such rumors to keep him from serving the Church in whatever way he thinks himself to be called, but there are likely some members of the bishops' conference who, given the sensitivities surrounding McCarrick and the Archdiocese of Newark, might judge this an inopportune time for the cardinal to stand for election.
Another frequently named possibility for conference vice president is Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City. Coakley has been a bishop for 15 years, and served a term as chairman of Catholic Relief Services, the bishops' international humanitarian aid apostolate.
In his role at CRS, he is generally regarded as having addressed lingering issues pertaining to the Catholic identity of the institution and its partners, in part by bringing together a coalition of moral theologians and international development experts to work through thorny issues. Coakley is also thought to have capably overseen leadership transitions amid a complex period of expansion during his term as CRS board chairman.