When the U.S. Catholic bishops gathered for their semi-annual meeting last week, the burning outsider question was what steps they would take to combat the clerical sexual abuse scandals that are once again scarring the Church in America.
For insiders, however, that question took on a highly specific focus: Would anyone finally sit in Ted McCarrick’s chair?
In reality, there is no chair formally designated for the disgraced former priest and cardinal whose downfall opened the floodgates for the latest wave of the abuse crisis, but, symbolically, his empty chair during recent meetings has come to represent something more.
McCarrick’s absence - once a towering figure in this august body - was a reminder of the betrayal many feel, and his name has become synonymous with the failings of the collective body of bishops and the source of rage for Catholics across the country.
In a room full of hundreds of chairs - none of which are actually reserved - one chair was just be assumed to be off-limits. It was his chair, where he had sat for years.
As a reporter focused on the Catholic Church, many people often ask me what it’s like to cover the U.S. bishops. Each year they hold two national meetings - gathering every November in Baltimore for a general assembly, and again in June at a rotating location - and making sense of their seating habits has been just one facet of coming to understand the customs and routines of this body of men.
At the level of public perception, the conference is often taken to be the governing body of the Catholic Church in America. In reality, the conference has little real power, since under Church law there’s no authority between the individual bishop and the pope. Nevertheless, decisions taken here matter, because most bishops make a good-faith effort to abide by them.
There are 441 Catholic bishops in the U.S., more than 270 of whom are in active ministry, making the U.S. body one of the largest conferences in the world. Retired members are also invited to attend - although after a decision taken at last week’s meetings, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), can now bar emeriti bishops who have been removed from office for grave reasons.
Ann Rodgers, the director of communications for the diocese of Pittsburgh, told me that the work of “mapping the room” where the U.S. bishops meet is one of the first essential tasks during the formal meetings of the USCCB.
Rodgers, who began attending these meetings in 1988 when she was a newspaper reporter and since going to work for a diocese in 2013 has helped the USCCB’s communication team when the bishops get together, said that as soon as the meetings get underway she and several other staffers go row by row to determine who is occupying each seat.
Once the chart is completed, USCCB president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo and General Secretary Monsignor Brian Bransfield draw on that list when bishops hold up a card seeking to make an intervention during the meeting.
“Sometimes you watch the president calling on someone ten rows back and you might think, ‘Gosh, he has a great memory.’ In reality, he’s using the list,” said Rodgers.
The seating chart also serves other purposes - namely, to locate bishops when the hundreds of interview requests from reporters like myself are submitted.
While in the past, reporters would complete an online form requesting to speak with a bishop, due to computer glitches, this year the USCCB opted for old-fashioned written requests. Once a form is submitted, a USCCB staffer then locates the bishop to determine if he’ll agree to an interview and if so, when and where - a task that can be difficult if a bishop is located in the middle of a row.
Reporters sit off to the side during these meetings, and often I’d look up to see Rodgers on the floor crawling on her hands and knees trying to squeeze her way through the row to have a sidebar conversation with a bishop.
“I’ve learned not to wear a dress,” she told me.
As for the seating locations, many bishops are creatures of habit, with some choosing to sit with their close friends and others choosing to sit with bishops from their region.
Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, and one of the newest of the bishops to the body, told me that “many of the preferred seats are in the back, just like at church.”
Last week marked McKnight’s second meeting as a bishop and he said he simply chose an empty seat toward the front since many of the back seats had already been taken.
“Maybe in time I’ll be able to work my way back,” he joked, adding that many bishops prefer the back not to be out of the spotlight but simply to be able to quickly access the bathrooms and the coffee table.
Yet while the formal proceedings in the grand ballroom are what make headlines, the entire hotel where the meeting takes place is typically abuzz with other happenings. Perhaps it is best compared to a political convention where all sorts of interest groups descend on a city seeking to do business with their preferred counterparts.
For some attendees, it offers the vibe of a family reunion, seeing old friends and making new ones. For other attendees, it presents the challenge of avoiding someone with whom they’ve recently engaged in a heated Twitter exchange.
By early evening, most bishops are out of their clerics, with many donning a collared shirt and slacks and venturing out to dinner, often with fellow bishop friends, sometimes with members of the press, or their staff members who have accompanied them for the week. Other bishops sneak off for a walk outside, with some enjoying a pipe and a cigar, while others are forced to take part in late night committee meetings.
(Although most bishops seem to appreciate the chance to unwind or enjoy a more casual atmosphere, I do recall last summer’s meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and running into several bishops in the gym with more than one still dressed in their full clerics while on the treadmill.)
Amy Newlon, who serves as the USCCB’s manager for meetings and events, told me that some 120 USCCB staff members were on hand for last week’s meetings. While not all stay overnight or for the full duration, the event takes a critical mass of the conference’s staff to pull everything off from press conferences to Masses, relying on a core team of 35 people to manage registration, production, and other logistics.
During the November meeting, Newlon said that they normally reach capacity at 600 hotel rooms between a mix of outside affiliates, USCCB staff, and bishops, who are responsible for paying for their own rooms.
For the last ten years, the USCCB has met at the Marriot in Baltimore’s inner harbor for the November meeting - and where they are under contract to meet for at least another nine years. The summer meetings rotate, providing a chance for the bishops to gather in a different location - among other things, as Newlon put it, “giving the west coast bishops a break from always having to travel out east.” Next summer’s meeting will take place in Detroit, followed by Denver and then on to San Diego (which is welcome news for this beach bum!).
“This is just ending, but we’re well on our way to planning for November,” Newlon told me.
Newlon also has the difficult job of trying to be sensitive to a range of dietary restrictions, telling me that she tries to keep the meal options healthy and not too extravagant - although the crab bisque has become a staple for the Baltimore meetings. This year, the twice-a-day coffee breaks included portable hummus and veggie cups as a snack option to the amusement of some bishops, but also the return of their longtime favorite ice cream bars.
In recent years, the gathering of the U.S. Church’s prelates in an expensive hotel has come under scrutiny, especially in light of Pope Francis’s call for a poor church for the poor, with some observers pointing to last January’s weeklong retreat of bishops at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary as a more appropriate model. Even so, others argue that given the need to welcome not just the bishops but the press and other outside personnel, hotels remain necessary to accommodate both the size of the gathering and the security demands.
Reflecting on her experience over the years, Rodgers says that it’s important to break the stereotype that all bishops are the same and that they’re only interested in the fine points of language and conference bureaucracy.
“Yes, they’re all men in black and of a certain age. I think because they dress alike and look alike that people think they’re monolithic. Yet they’re all individuals with their own views and personalities, and they’re grateful for any assistance you give them,” she told me.
In my own experience, that’s largely been true, with most - though not all - bishops being willing to sit down for an interview and to offer their own perspective on a rapidly changing church and country.
As the U.S. bishops filled the Marriot ballroom last Tuesday, the McCarrick chair was eventually taken. For some observers, it was a welcome sign that even in an archaic institution, change is possible. Yet for others, it remains to be seen whether such change is more than mere symbolism.