Analysis

Getting to February: The decisions that could shape the pope's summit

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, at sunset. Credit: Shutterstock.
St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, at sunset. Credit: Shutterstock.

.- As the Church continues to wrestle with the fall-out of last year’s sexual abuse scandals, the Vatican faces a series of crucial decisions in the coming weeks. How they are resolved, and in what order, will likely set the tone for the rest of the year.

 

One month from today, the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences will gather in Rome for a special summit to address the abuse crisis. Ahead of that meeting, the Vatican has attempted to lower what it has called “excessive” expectations.

 

These efforts notwithstanding, the credibility of its discussions and conclusions will likely play a large part in shaping wider assessments of the Church in 2019. But before the three-day meeting begins, two other events could do much to frame how the February session will be seen from the outside.

 

The first of these events is the replacement of Cardinal Donald Wuerl as Archbishop of Washington, DC. The second is the conclusion of the penal process handling the allegations against Wuerl’s predecessor, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. Both are expected imminently, and both seem sure to cast a shadow, for good or for ill, on February’s meeting and whatever it produces.

 

As has been previously reported, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently concluded the investigative phase of its handling of the McCarrick case. The CDF also confirmed that, instead of a full canonical trial, McCarrick was facing a penal administrative process - ordinarily reserved for handling cases where the evidence is clear and compelling.

 

Officials in different Vatican departments, if not the CDF itself, have already begun pointedly referring to the former cardinal as “Mr. McCarrick” in a nod to his likely laicization if he is found guilty of sexual abuse.

 

While Rome appears intent on ensuring the McCarrick case is resolved - one way or another - before the February meeting, how much detail the CDF makes public about the resolution will be important.

 

McCarrick is accused of a number of grave crimes, including the sexual abuse of minors and adults. What is done and said about his alleged abuse of adults may prove more significant, even if it represents the lesser charge canonically speaking.

 

If McCarrick is found guilty of abusing seminarians over a period of years, it will be far harder for the February meeting to ignore the growing calls for an expansion in law of the definition of “vulnerable adults” to include victims like McCarrick’s.

 

On the other hand, if no decision is reached, or publicly acknowledged, on those charges, the seminarians who submitted their testimony as part of the CDF process may well feel ignored, and their suffering marginalized all over again.

 

Either result is likely to inform perceptions of the Vatican summit next month and present a serious obstacle to those hoping to force through a narrower focus and agenda based only on the abuse of minors, about which there is less disagreement among the bishops.

 

Meanwhile, the replacement of Cardinal Wuerl in Washington remains a significant and increasingly urgent priority for Rome.

 

Just months ago, before the scandals of last summer, Wuerl seemed likely to continue in office until he was nearly 80, well past the normal retirement age for bishops, which he passed when he turned 75 three years ago. His resignation, submitted in 2015, was accepted last October (with obvious reluctance by the pope) due to mounting pressure on the cardinal following the Pennsylvania grand jury report - in which he was named more than 200 times - and questions about what Wuerl did or did not know about his predecessor.

 

Recent weeks have seen confirmation by Wuerl that, despite his earlier denials, he was aware of accusations against McCarrick involving misconduct with seminarians as early as 2004. His current tenure as administrator of the Washington archdiocese has helped to keep both him and McCarrick in the news.

 

While a replacement for Wuerl would likely be received as a welcome turning of the page for both Washington Catholics and the Vatican, deciding who that replacement should be has proven difficult for Rome to resolve. Sources in Washington and the Vatican, including the Congregation for Bishops, have spoken to CNA about a lack of consensus on who is best placed to succeed Wuerl.

 

Some in Rome had previously speculated that picking a successor for Wuerl might wait until after the February meeting, allowing it to be presented as part of an ongoing process of renewal. Recent events have now made his replacement a more pressing priority.

 

Further urgency now seems likely, given the expectation of a decision on the McCarrick case. Given the esteem Wuerl still enjoys in Rome, it is unlikely that the Vatican would announce his replacement soon after a guilty verdict on McCarrick, lest the two been seen as related events. If McCarrick’s fate is expected soon, the next archbishop of Washington may well be expected sooner still.

 

With the Congregation, the pope’s own inner circle of advisors, and Wuerl himself all eager to put forward their own candidates, a succession of supposed front-runners have been touted, beginning with Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, passing through Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, and now appearing to settle around either Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport or Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta.

 

Whoever emerges as the next Archbishop of Washington (and likely cardinal), they will have been chosen with an eye on presenting a credible face of change but one not expected to further rock the boat of the capital see.

 

If both McCarrick and Wuerl’s different situations can be resolved in the next few weeks, it may offer some breathing room before the February summit. But even assuming the most positive outcome and reception in both cases, little seems likely to dampen expectations for what many are calling a make-or-break meeting in Rome. Senior figures, like former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors Marie Collins, are already warning that the meeting must produce a “practical” outcome and not merely “more talk.”

 

Earlier this month, Pope Francis wrote to the American bishops about the crisis of credibility facing the hierarchy. He and the Vatican are now facing three major events in the space of a few weeks. How each of them is handled could affect profoundly how quickly that credibility is regained.

Tags: Pope Francis, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick

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