When members of the U.S. bishops’ conference meet next week in Baltimore for their annual fall plenary meeting, they will elect new leadership and committee chairman, vote on a budget, talk about their Eucharistic Revival initiative, and discuss what kind of guidance they’ll give ahead of the 2024 U.S. presidential election.
It’s an ordinary business meeting for the conference, doing the ordinary business of ecclesiastical leaders in apparently ordinary times — with no fireworks or controversies on the agenda.
But the meeting is not taking place in ordinary times.
Instead, the U.S. bishops will gather as the Church grapples with a new chapter of a crisis, borne of a series of demoralizing revelations about clerical sexual abuse.
The latest crisis, though, is not in the U.S. — its epicenter is France, where 11 bishops have faced recent investigations for abuse or cover-up, where a bishop was allowed to retire for health reasons despite allegations - and an eventual secret sanction - of spiritual and sexual abuse, and where a cardinal admitted this week that 35 years ago, he sexually abused a 14-year-old.
French Catholics are responding to those revelations as did Americans four years ago, when the McCarrick scandal and the Pennsylvania grand jury report emerged, and clerics, religious, and laity expressed both anger and deep disappointment over the failures of governance in their Church.
Like their American counterparts, French Catholics have questions —
Why did the Holy See let Bishop Santier retire quietly, when officials knew about allegations he had abused the sacrament of penance - and young Catholics - in acts of depravity?
Why did it take the president of the French bishops’ conference months to report allegations of child sexual abuse leveled against Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard?
Why, days after admitting to “reprehensible acts” with a child, does the cardinal still have faculties? What did the cardinal actually do?
Why is he still a member of Vatican congregations? Why is he still a cardinal?
Will there be a Vatican review of the cardinal’s role in overseeing and voting on sexual abuse appeals at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? How might his own secret have impacted his work overseeing a central arm of the Church’s criminal justice system?
Which bishops knew about Santier, or Ricard, or others accused of abuse, and what did they do with that knowledge — did they invite the cardinal to preside over a Mass before calling the police? Did they talk with Ricard himself before contacting the Holy See? Can that be justified?
For some of those questions, it will take a while for clear answers — there is still a great deal of ambiguity about what the cardinal has admitted to.
French prosecutors are investigating Ricard for “aggravated sexual assault,” and, according to French media, have described the cardinal’s actions as “kisses” or “embraces.” Some have accused Ricard of minimizing what happened with the girl, while other reports say that Church officials did not initially realize the cardinal’s victim was a minor at the time they initially received reports of sexual misconduct.
Some questions may not be answered — the Holy See has an uneven track record - at best - in responding to concrete questions about canonical investigations.
Whatever happens to the questions of French Catholics, some U.S. bishops are likely breathing a sigh of relief that the latest chapter of the scandal is not taking place in their country. But bishops would be mistaken to think that American Catholics are not paying attention — or that the scandal does not have domestic implications.
A study published last month by the Catholic University of America reported declining levels of trust in their bishops - or the bishops as a body - among American Catholic priests, with particular levels of dissatisfaction centered around issues related to the sexual abuse scandal.
Priests told researchers, among others things, that some bishops seem to regard themselves as “above the law,” or act “imperiously” or as “bureaucrats.”
The disparity between the treatment of priests and bishops accused of sexual abuse contributes to that viewpoint — priests have noted that although bishops may remain in ministry while being confidentially investigated for sexual abuse allegations - as in France - priests face a “zero tolerance” culture that sees them removed from ministry, and even from faculties, the moment an allegation is made.
A number of priests said that bishops appear to lack “accountability” in their exercise of ministry, and flagged that concern as a key issue for clergy and lay faithful alike.
Those issues, among others, have led to a situation in which fewer than 25% of priests surveyed said they trust the U.S. bishops as a body — and only 36% said they would trust their bishop with a personal problem.
Priests said their bishops are too often impersonal, businesslike, and unwilling to trust their own clergy.
Those survey results are no doubt painful for many bishops. Many reported self-perceptions far different from the perceptions of surveyed priests, and some bishops have expressed regret at the way they are apparently perceived by their priests — and by some portion of laity as well, most likely.
Meanwhile, the unfolding situation in France is likely to compound the frustration and discouragement of American priests — the various crises there suggest precisely failures of accountability, responsibility, or justice among bishops in that country, both at home and at the Holy See.
And the situation might come at exactly the wrong time for the U.S. bishops.
Priests who say they’ve lost trust in their bishops tell The Pillar that they’ve hoped to hear earnest and sincere responses to crisis situations from their shepherds — to hear their own disappointment at scandals with hurting victims, which can become a stumbling block to both the faith of ordinary Catholics, and to the hope of earnest priests.
Priests, and others, want to know that their bishops have honest-to-God human responses to an ecclesiastical crisis, and a human tragedy.
Of course, many bishops likely do have such responses – some are likely as frustrated and discouraged by the existence and handling of abuse among the Church's bishops as are lay Catholics in both the U.S. and in France. Several have said as much to The Pillar in recent weeks.
And the bishops might offer responses like that in the course of their deliberations next week — might take a moment to acknowledge their own perceptions of the scandals in France, and their handling at the Vatican.
But because the bishops’ conference has expanded its closed-door executive sessions during the course of USCCB meetings, there’s a chance that conversation might happen with no one to hear it.
There are, of course, cogent reasons why the bishops have reduced the public portion of their meeting, and expanded the time spent without press, TV cameras, or official observers. Bishops say that more time without an audience means more time in prayer, and more ability to hash things out sincerely, without the dampening effect on conversation the cameras sometimes have.
That may well be. There may be good reason for the U.S. bishops to have more conversations, not fewer, without reporters, Twitter pundits, and others listening in, some waiting for clickbaity sound bites from which to profit, or to sensationalize.
But if the bishops engage in a real assessment of where things stand on sexual abuse, episcopal accountability, and ecclesiastical reform, putting it behind closed doors would likely be a missed opportunity.
If they plan to address the flagging confidence of their priests, there are likely some conversations that bishops will need to have in public. In short, talking seriously about the crisis in France might well become a moment for renewal of ecclesial communion in the U.S.
But will the bishops’ conference address the extraordinary challenge the Church is facing in France, and its meaning for Catholics around the world?
That remains to be seen.