Bumpy ride in Baltimore

November 25, 2018
by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

As we began our November General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Baltimore, I said to one of my fellow bishops, “Fasten your seat belt. I think we are in for a bumpy ride” (figuratively speaking). No sooner had I said that when the president of our conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, announced that he had received word from the Congregation for Bishops that no vote be taken on the proposals during the bishops’ fall meeting. The proposals included standards of accountability for bishops and the formation of a special commission composed predominantly of lay people to review complaints against bishops for violations of the standards.

“We have accepted it with disappointment,” Cardinal DiNardo said of the congregation’s request. “We have not lessened in any of our resolve for actions. We are going to work intensely on these items of action. We can’t vote on them totally, but clarify them, get them more intensely canonically well, so that Rome will see that. We’re going to keep pushing and moving until we get to a point where they become action,” he said.

The reason given for the delay was that the Holy Father wanted the bishops of the United States to wait until after the February meeting that he has called for presidents of episcopal conferences from around the world. This would help to make sure that the policies of the bishops’ conferences of each country are consistent. Although no formal vote was taken on these proposals out of obedience to the Holy Father, there was plenty of discussion as bishops expressed their opinions on the best way to move forward. These discussions and expressions of opinion will help guide Cardinal DiNardo as he represents the bishops of the United States at this meeting in February.

Many people, laity as well as clergy, have voiced their disappointment, anger and frustration upon learning of this delay. One commentator in an online blog wrote that “the bishops cannot even police themselves.” While that was intended to be a negative criticism, it actually reflects the reality that a national conference of bishops is not a disciplinary body or a judicatory body, but a collegial gathering for joint action to address pastoral issues.

An analogy may be helpful. Attorneys licensed to practice law belong to associations like the Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA), which is a professional organization that offers continuing legal education and promotes changes in the law as needed, but the ISBA cannot discipline or disbar an attorney for misconduct. Attorneys are licensed by the Illinois Supreme Court. Allegations of attorney misconduct are investigated by an agency of the Illinois Supreme Court called the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, not the ISBA.

Similarly, the USCCB developed proposals designed to assist the Holy Father in handling these matters, since only the pope can discipline or remove a bishop, but he cannot realistically be expected to do that effectively without some assistance, given that there over 5,000 bishops around the world. In the end, though, it is the pope’s responsibility, so it is his prerogative to decide the best way to do this. We respectfully defer to his authority in this regard. Cardinal DiNardo expressed his hope that the February meeting will be productive.

Here in our own state, a lawsuit filed in Cook County in October claimed the Catholic dioceses in Illinois conspired to conceal allegations of abuse. This claim is false. In fact, the specific complaint involving the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois was thoroughly investigated and reported to civil authorities. The diocese shared the details of the complaint with then Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Schmidt. More broadly, beyond the specific case referred to in this lawsuit, the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois has already been working cooperatively with the Illinois Attorney General’s office to respond to requests for information relating to past and present practices of handling allegations of sexual abuse of minors by church personnel.

Once again, I acknowledge that the horrible acts of abuse, and the negligence with which some leaders have handled them, are evil. We would be blind to the full force of evil being inflicted if we failed to see the work of the devil in all the pain and suffering of victims of abuse and the scandal these crimes and sins have created for all the faithful. In fact, to see the source of this activity properly is to understand clearly the gravity of the acts committed by those complicit in it.

May God give us this grace. Amen.