Among the bishops attending morning prayer Nov. 13 at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore were, from left, Bishops Richard Henning, Nelson Perez, Andrzej Zglejszewski and Robert Brennan. Bishops Henning, Zglejszewski and Brennan are current auxiliary bishops of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Bishop Perez, a former Rockville Centre auxiliary, is now the bishop of the Cleveland Diocese. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
BALTIMORE (CNS) — The U.S. bishops opened and closed the second day of their annual fall general assembly in Baltimore with frank presentations and discussions about the action needed to address the widening clerical sexual abuse crisis.
After the Nov. 13 session opened with prayer, the chair of a group that has advised the U.S. bishops for 50 years on multiple issues chose to speak to them on just one: the clergy sexual abuse crisis and ways to move forward from it.
“We are facing painful times as a church,” said Father David Whitestone, chair of the bishops’ National Advisory Council. “The depth of anger, pain and disappointment expressed by members of the NAC cannot begin to be expressed adequately in words.”
He noted that progress has been made since the bishops developed the 2002 “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” but he stressed that more needs to be done. “We can never become complacent. We must recommit to the ongoing care of all victims in their healing,” Father Whitestone said.
In his report on the work of the National Review Board, chairman Francesco Cesareo called for broadening the scope of the charter to include bishops. He also urged publishing complete lists of credibly accused clergy in all dioceses; improving the audit process; and enhancing accountability for bishops regarding cases of abuse.
He urged the bishops to take action and continue to move solutions to abuse forward. “Don’t stagnate it, or slow it down,” said Cesareo during a question-and-answer period following his report. He said if action against abuse does not move forward, “I fear for the future of our church.”
During a late-afternoon open discussion on the crisis, the case of Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick posed the most daunting questions for the bishops.
Several said they had been hearing from people in the pews and that the laity’s questions revolved around how the hierarchy could allow Archbishop McCarrick to gain so much influence and rise to the highest ranks of the church hierarchy if they knew of the abuse of which he is accused.
The former cardinal-archbishop of Washington is accused of abusing a minor decades ago and having sexual contact with seminarians in more recent years. He denies the allegations.
During the discussion, there also were calls for bishops to examine their relationship with Jesus and with God and to ask themselves what it means to be a shepherd in their dioceses.
Other action on the day’s agenda included presentation of a proposed pastoral, “The Enduring Call to Love: A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” introduced by Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio, chairman of the Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church.
The pastoral was prepared in consultation with and in collaboration with several committees: the cultural diversity committee; the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, chaired by Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana; and all the other standing committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishop Fabre also is chair of the bishops’ Subcommittee on African American Affairs.
“Despite many promising strides made in our country, the ugly cancer of racism still infects our nation,” the proposed pastoral says. A vote to approve it was scheduled for Nov. 14.
The bishops also heard presentations on proposals for addressing the abuse crisis, so they could discuss them, even though the Vatican had requested they postpone voting on them.
On Nov. 12, as the fall assembly opened, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, USCCB president, announced the Vatican had asked the bishops to delay any vote until these proposals can be reviewed for conformity to canon law and until after the February Vatican meeting for presidents of bishops’ conferences worldwide to discuss the abuse crisis.
The proposals include establishing standards of episcopal accountability; forming a special commission for review of complaints against bishops for violations of the accountability standards; and establishing a protocol regarding restrictions on bishops who were removed or who resigned over claims of sexual misconduct made against them or for grave negligence in office.
The bishops also heard a presentation from Heather Banis, a trauma psychologist who is victim assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. She told them that helping victims and survivors of child sex abuse heal is a journey that involves showing them repeated trustworthiness.
It begins with listening, understanding, offering responses showing that they, the victim-survivors, are believed, she said.
Msgr. Todd Lajiness, rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and president of the National Association of Catholic Theological Schools, outlined feedback given by some U.S. seminary rectors on promoting “celibate chastity” among seminarians as well as having listening sessions with seminarians, taking “a fresh look at boundaries,” and providing “new pathways for reporting” abuse allegations.
Priests and faculty need to be particularly attentive to “the power differential between” themselves and seminarians, Msgr. Lajiness said. “Guidelines need to be maintained.”
In his presidential address Nov. 12, Cardinal DiNardo took note of the historic nature of this year’s meeting.
“Whether we will be remembered as guardians of the abused or of the abuser will be determined by our action beginning this week and the months ahead,” he said. “Let us draw near to Christ today, sacrificing our own ambitions and promptly submit ourselves totally to what he demands of us both in love and justice.”
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States — who met privately with Pope Francis just two days before his Nov. 12 address to the bishops — urged them to face the issue of clergy sexual abuse straight on, not to run from the challenges that confront them but “face them realistically and courageously.”
He added, “There is always more to do, and we bishops must not be afraid to get our hands dirty in doing that work,” he said, urging them to collaborate with the laity but to face the current crisis, both individually and as a group.
Most of the first day of the assembly was set aside for prayer and reflection by the bishops in a makeshift chapel at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront.
During that time, they heard from two victim-survivors what they have endured: Luis A. Torres Jr. and Teresa Pitt Green. Both painfully painted the landscape that has brought the U.S. Catholic Church to the urgent need to address the sex abuse crisis.
Later, a woman religious and a laywoman addressed what the laity need from the bishops and how bishops can be ministers of healing.
The day ended with celebration of Mass in the makeshift chapel. In his homily, Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis urged his brother bishops to give their all to addressing the abuse crisis and show a commitment to change what needs to be changed to put an end to any abuse.
“We need to be bold, we need to be decisive, but we need to do that in a way that serves the unity of the church, not only with the See of Rome but also within the church in the United States,” Archbishop Hebda said.
Other agenda items for the last day of the meeting included approving a budget for 2019 as well as:
— A request for the bishops to endorse the sainthood cause of Sister Thea Bowman, the great-granddaughter of slaves and the only African-American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She transcended racism to leave a lasting mark on Catholic life in the United States in the late 20th century.
— Reports on October’s Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment”; July’s V Encuentro for Hispanic Catholics in the United States; and recognition of the 40th anniversary of the USCCB’s pastoral statement on persons with disabilities.