Leading US bishops and senior figures in the Vatican are – quite disgracefully – playing politics with sex abuse. That is the first thing American Catholics need to understand about the chaos currently reigning in their Church. Indeed, it is something that Catholics all over the world need to know, because a crisis like this is likely to engulf their national churches in the near future. That is why the Catholic Herald is running this analysis in both its new US edition and the 130-year-old British magazine.
Events over the past few months – and especially the last two weeks – have been so confusing that millions of faithful Catholics are concentrating on their spiritual lives rather than the frequently incomprehensible bad news about crimes committed by bishops, priests and the monstrous Theodore McCarrick, former Cardinal Archbishop of Washington.
Unfortunately, world-shattering scandals are often frustratingly complex. Watergate ended in high drama, but first came mind-numbing claims and counter-claims that only political junkies could keep up with.
What follows is as straightforward as we can make it: five things you need know about very recent developments in the American bishops’ sex abuse crisis. It’s based on conversations with well-informed sources who, understandably, refuse to be named at a time when some of the most exalted Catholic prelates are gripped by a spirit of vengefulness.
1. Very senior American bishops are still compromised by ex-Cardinal McCarrick
“Uncle Ted” didn’t just “corrupt generations of seminarians and priests”, as whistleblower Archbishop Viganò accurately put it. He also compromised his close allies – who must have known roughly what he was up to in that notorious beachfront house. Yet two of those allies, Cardinals Donald Wuerl (his successor in Washington, just forced to resign) and Cardinal Kevin Farrell in Rome say they never suspected a thing.
To make matters worse, it was McCarrick who drew up the 2002 US bishops’ sex abuse guidelines which exempted bishops from disciplinary proceedings. How convenient for him. After McCarrick’s crimes and the cover-ups were made public year, the US conference of bishops had to draw up emergency plans for proper guidelines. This month those plans went spectacularly wrong.
2. Ludicrously, there are two rival plans to discipline immoral bishops
Plan A, backed by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the US bishops’ conference, involves setting up an independent commission of six lay people and three clergy to draw up a code of conduct for bishops. Critics say allowing non-clerics power over the hierarchy smacks of Protestantism. Many parents don’t care. They’re not exactly impressed with the bishops’ efforts to police themselves.
Under Plan B, complaints against a bishop would be handled by his metropolitan archbishop and a “metropolitan review board”. This is a more Catholic way of doing things. The conservative Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia favours it on these grounds. But one obvious objection is that Ted McCarrick was a metropolitan. Until their meeting in Baltimore this month, most US bishops thought Plan B was dead in the water; they had no idea Rome was pushing for it.
3. The Vatican is playing a very strange game with these plans
On the first day of the Baltimore meeting, Rome humiliated Cardinal DiNardo by forcing him to announce at the very last minute that the bishops could not even vote on, let alone implement, Plan A (giving power to a lay-dominated commission). Instead, they must wait for Pope Francis’s global summit of the presidents of bishops’ conferences at the Vatican in February next year.
It’s reasonable for the Pope to want worldwide guidelines for errant bishops – but why resort to Trumpian tactics, pulling the rug from under DiNardo in front of the television cameras? If Plan A was unacceptable to Francis, why didn’t he say so well in advance? He had already embarrassed Cardinals DiNardo and O’Malley and Archbishop Gómez once this year, when they visited him to ask for an apostolic visitation into the McCarrick saga and he sent them away empty-handed. (Incidentally, would he have treated visitors from any other country with such disrespect? Some US Catholics are muttering that if the Holy Father dislikes Americans as much as he sometimes appears to, he can look for sources of funding elsewhere.)
The Pope now says he will oversee his own McCarrick inquiry. This promise is not generating much confidence.
4. Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago is playing an even stranger game
Last Saturday, Dr Ed Condon, canon lawyer and Washington bureau chief of the Catholic News Agency, broke a story that made disturbing claims about the Baltimore fiasco. Plan B (giving power to metropolitan archbishops) is back with a vengeance, reported Condon. A version of it had been drawn up by Cardinal Cupich of Chicago and Cardinal Wuerl, of all people – with the approval of the Pope, it seems. Moreover, Cupich and Wuerl had earlier presented it to the powerful Congregation for Bishops in Rome, said Condon. They belong to it; DiNardo doesn’t.
A bishops’ conference official told Condon that the revived metropolitan scheme is known as the “Wuerl plan” – though Cardinal Wuerl is not happy about this, because he knows his name is toxic in America. According to Vatican expert Fr Raymond de Souza, Wuerl had to resign his see because his own Washington priests thought he was “lying” when he claimed to know nothing about McCarrick’s serial molestation. Yet Pope Francis is strangely indulgent of Wuerl. He was reluctant to let him resign and praised him to the skies. But we should also bear in mind that Plan B has its merits.
The man to watch, for all sorts of reasons, is Cardinal Cupich. He is now denying that he collaborated with Wuerl. In which case, why are multiple sources insisting that he did? Cupich was thoroughly conversant with the “Wuerl plan” when he unexpectedly presented it to the bishops in Baltimore. Cardinal DiNardo was taken by surprise. Someone is playing politics here.
Is Cardinal Cupich pitching to become de facto leader of the US bishops with the backing of Francis? If so, he is asking for trouble. He is the most divisive serving metropolitan archbishop in the country, parachuted into Chicago by the Pope in a manner that outraged some fellow bishops. Significantly, a year ago he was defeated when he stood for election of the bishops’ pro-life committee.
5. Pope Francis’s reputation is now really on the line
Let us take a step back and remember that the Pope is still refusing to answer questions about McCarrick. Last week, Mgr Charles Pope, a pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington and one of the most influential priests in the United States, wrote the following words in the National Catholic Register:
To most Catholics, the Pope’s actions and seeming resistance place the ownership of the scandal squarely in his court; he has increasingly become the face of the scandal. This is due to the credible accusations that he knew of former Cardinal McCarrick’s predatory behaviour but even more so to the fact that he has steadfastly refused even to respond to the charges … Instead, the Pope has declared that he will “not say one word on this”. Even worse, he subsequently referred to those who have asked for answers and investigations as “a pack of wild dogs”, “scandal-mongers”, and “those in league with the Great Accuser”. This is no way to treat God’s faithful; it makes him seem more of a besieged and angry potentate than a shepherd who “has the smell of the sheep”.
One might dispute the monsignor’s claim that “most Catholics” feel this way. But, clearly, many leading Catholics – including cardinals – hold this opinion. They are desperate to see the US bishops clean house. But it is a measure of the extraordinary times in which we live that they will be wary of any plan that comes with the papal seal of approval.
Michael Warren Davis is the Catholic Herald’s US editor. Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald and associate editor of The Spectator