DENVER — Let’s say you’re an American Catholic galled and outraged that, 16 years after the clerical sexual abuse scandals erupted in Boston in 2002, they more or less repeated themselves in recent months during the Church’s “summer of shame.” If that’s where you are, you’ve got plenty of company.

What are you likely to make of what happened when the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore November 12-14 for their fall meeting, having promised dramatic action to finally make accountability and “zero tolerance” real?

Your outrage likely wasn’t abated to hear that the bishops were standing down at the Vatican’s request, waiting for a three-day Rome summit February 21-24, for all the presidents of bishops’ conferences throughout the world to discuss child protection.

You probably also weren’t terribly consoled to learn that the Vatican-imposed delay was, in part, due to the fact there were serious problems under Church law with the draft American proposals, so much so they may not have been able to muster two-thirds support from the full body. 

If anything, that probably just suggests to you that the bishops should have done their homework before Baltimore.

Are you edified by the idea that, by waiting until after February, the bishops can ensure their decisions are part of a coherent global response? Again, probably not, at least if you’ve thought about it for more than five minutes.

Here’s the truth of the matter: As of this writing, we don’t know who’s organizing that February summit or what its agenda will be. 

The majority of the presidents participating will come from cultures significantly behind the United States in confronting the abuse crisis, and they’re only going to be together three days. The likelihood that some dramatic new response will come out of it, therefore, is fairly remote.

Add to that the fact the American bishops also appear to be no closer to truly getting to the bottom of the scandals surrounding former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and that “lunch-bucket Catholic” instinct probably isn’t feeling charitably inclined to anyone in authority right now.

All of which makes the answer to the following question critical: So, what comes next?

Right now, the U.S. bishops are trying to overhaul their proposals to make sure they’re in good shape to carry to the February summit. On the issue of accountability for bishops, it now seems they may be looking to the traditional metropolitan structure, with metropolitan archbishops investigating charges against bishops from smaller dioceses in their territory, and senior suffragan bishops handling charges against the metropolitans.

Although such a system would require Rome to grant expanded authorities to metropolitans, some observers believe it stands a better chance of passing canonical muster than the original plan of creating an independent commission of laity and clergy which would, in effect, share in the pope’s authority over bishops.

On the McCarrick front, it seems the bishops still intend to move forward with separate investigations in the four dioceses where he served — New York, Metuchen, Newark, and Washington. 

Those probes could yield useful insights, though most observers believe the important answers about who facilitated his rise to power, perhaps despite knowing of misconduct concerns, lie in Rome.

For now, the U.S. bishops are reduced to waiting for the Vatican to deliver on its promise of October 6 to study all its files on McCarrick and then release the results “in due course.”

Assuming authorities in both the U.S. and Rome are concerned about how much longer they may be able to hold onto grassroots support, several things would seem to need to happen between now and February.

First, it would be helpful for the Vatican to complete its review of the McCarrick files and place what it finds on the table. 

Not only would that go a long way toward convincing ordinary American Catholics that Pope Francis and his team truly are committed to transparency, it would also send an important signal to the bishops from other countries descending on Rome what the new expectations now are.

Granted, that could be a politically dicey thing to do, assuming the files confirm what many already suspect: that important figures from the papacy of St. Pope John Paul II were involved in moving McCarrick up the ladder, and that Francis and some members of his inner circle also promoted McCarrick’s role in retirement. Still, it’s precisely a willingness to take those hits that would make the gesture meaningful.

Second, the U.S. bishops need to make their proposals for accountability airtight, and they need to make their process reasonably open so that the Catholic public has confidence that things are being done. 

That, too, is delicate, because the leadership of the conference learned the hard way in September that it’s never a good idea to seem to paint the pope into a corner. However, putting the accent on “proposal” and always exuding deference to Francis’ leadership almost certainly could avoid such perceptions.

In the meantime, there’s one other stop along the way the bishops also need to take seriously.

At the suggestion of Francis, they’re scheduled to meet for a weeklong spiritual retreat on the grounds of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary January 2-8, led by the Preacher of the Papal Household, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.

Yes, they can (and undoubtedly will) use that time informally for consultations about their proposals for accountability, the McCarrick case, and other outstanding business.

However, the prelates at Mundelein probably would be well advised, above all else, to enter into the introspective and penitential spirit of the retreat. First of all, that’s what the boss has asked them to do, and it would be in their interests to project that they’re responding.

Deeper than that is the reality that this is a spiritual crisis as much as one of policy of law, and given the mountains the bishops will have to climb between now and February, and beyond, recharging the spiritual batteries is probably not a bad idea.


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