America News Analysis

Pope Francis has signalled his support for Cupich’s plan. But will the laity agree?

Catholics expect stringent measures to discipline predatory clerics. They may have to wait

This February, the leaders of national bishops’ conferences from across the global Church will meet in Rome to discuss solutions to the sex abuse crisis. Last week Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, German Jesuit Fr Hans Zollner and Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai to serve on the planning committee.

The meeting assumed new importance after the Holy See prevented the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) from voting on two measures designed to address the sexual abuse crisis in the United States, saying that no binding resolutions should be passed until the USCCB’s leaders had the opportunity to consider other conferences’ experiences and suggestions. Many American bishops were clearly frustrated with Rome unexpectedly tabling their proposed measures to curb predation and misconduct, but Cardinal Cupich quickly took the floor and defended Rome’s decision (though he said later that it was “disappointing”).

In a subsequent interview with Crux, the cardinal said the intervention was evidence that Pope Francis was initiating a “worldwide reform”: a global approach to rooting out sexual abuse in the Church. “It’s important to note that by calling a global meeting he understands this to be a global issue, and he wants to reinforce our shared commitment as a Church to establishing responsiveness, accountability and transparency,” said Cardinal Cupich (pictured with Pope Francis).

The Archbishop of Chicago added, however, that the February summit should not be seen as the final step in the fight against sexual abuse. Instead, he argued that “this meeting has to be understood as part of a long-term commitment to reform, realising that one meeting will not solve every issue.”

Archbishop Scicluna – the Vatican’s most trusted prosecutor of abusive clergy – seemed to share Cardinal Cupich’s perspective. He told America magazine the meeting was “a very important start of a global process which will take quite some time to perfect”.

As for specific measures the meeting might implement, he also agreed with Cardinal Cupich that metropolitan bishops could be given a more prominent role in scrutinising fellow bishops’ handling of abuse cases. This would, however, require a change of church law, and the archbishop said he did not expect the Rome gathering to “enter into the details of such reforms of canon law”. Instead, he anticipated that “there will be an important input that will start a process that may actually get a reform of canon law.”

Still, Archbishop Scicluna’s remark that the summit will start a process that “may” get a reform of canon law raises concerns that the meeting will be limited in its ambition.

Given the restrictions placed on the USCCB’s Baltimore summit this month, the laity will expect even more stringent measures to discipline predatory and promiscuous clerics. And they might not get them ­– at least in the short term.

According to Catholic News Agency’s Ed Condon, Cardinal Cupich submitted a proposal supporting the so-called “metropolitan model” to the USCCB leadership the day before they converged on Baltimore. Given the anger of the American bishops about the Vatican blocking their proposals – which favoured lay-led investigations – Cardinal Cupich patently was not chosen as a representative of the USCCB’s majority opinion.

In fact, Condon claims, the cardinal’s proposal was also known as the “Wuerl plan” in Rome. The name comes from the former Archbishop of Washington who first suggested that bishops, as opposed to lay investigators, should be responsible for policing each other.

Shortly after the first allegations against his predecessor, ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Cardinal Wuerl said: “I think it’s very important that we … as bishops enter into that world and say, ‘If there is an accumulation of rumours [about a bishop’s misconduct], ought not something be said?” He told the National Catholic Reporter it was worth considering “some sort of a panel, a board, of bishops … where we would take it upon ourselves, or a number of bishops would be deputed, to ask about those rumours”.

That first “Wuerl plan” was roundly panned on social media. The new version is unlikely to find more favour with lay people this time around, even if it carries Cardinal Cupich’s name now.

Cardinal Wuerl resigned as archbishop at the behest of his own priests and parishioners. Church-watchers were therefore shocked to be told (also per Condon’s report) that he allegedly helped to draft Cupich’s proposal. Yet this may have been naïve: the Pope accepted Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation in the form of a letter praising his leadership. He was clearly still in favour in Rome.

Cardinal Cupich and Cardinal Wuerl both deny that they cooperated on the metropolitan plan, though a spokesman for Cardinal Wuerl later said he was only referring to the recent past. “I have no idea,” he told Crux, whether the cardinal had collaborated on such a plan at some previous stage. Cardinal Cupich gave a firmer denial: “At no time prior to the Baltimore meeting did the two of us collaborate in developing, nor even talk about, an alternative plan,” he told Crux.

CNA is standing by its reporting, which it says is based on multiple sources. On this point, as on so much else in the crisis, agreement is hard to come by.