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U.S. Bishops’ Conference: An Exercise in Incompetence

In 2000, Monsignor David Malloy left his work in the papal household and returned to the United States to become an associate general secretary at the U.S. bishops’ conference. In 2006, he was elected general secretary, defeating Monsignor John Strynkowski of Brooklyn. In 2010, then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan was elected President of the U.S. bishops’ conference, defeating the sitting vice president, Bishop Gerald Kicanas. Traditionally, the vice president almost always assumed the top spot, but Kicanas was a protégé of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and Dolan’s candidacy was an effort to end what George Weigel dubbed the “the Bernardin Era.”

Weigel characterized that era as embracing a “culturally accommodating Catholicism” in contrast to the culture warrior approach of Weigel’s favored clerics, an approach that forged an understanding of Catholic identity that aligned neatly with the conservative sexual ethics and libertarian economic beliefs common among Republicans.

What actually happened to the conference with these events was the replacement of highly competent prelates with incompetent ones. Now, the president of the conference is Cardinal Daniel DiNardo who could not inspire a mouse to cheese. More importantly, DiNardo is one of those former Vatican curia officials who long disdained bishops’ conferences, so now the leadership of the conference is in the hands of people who do not believe in the conference. It is akin to what happens when the anti-government GOP takes the reins of governance. You end up with a director of the Environmental Protection Agency who does not actually believe the environment needs protecting.

The ideological challenges are as enormous as the core competency issues. They wanted to fight culture wars, and they did, but what have they achieved? The Church is as polarized as the culture. A multi-year religious freedom campaign pursued a highly tendentious and legally expansive understanding of the concept that went far beyond what the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis humanae had prescribed. The bishops’ conference launched an annual “Fortnight for Freedom,” with themes like “Freedom to Serve” and “Freedom for Mission.” Next year’s theme? “Freedom from Attorneys-General.”

Because, while pursuing extremist legal strategies and aligning the Catholic hierarchy almost exclusively with Republican party politics, the conference ignored the need to enforce the norms for child protection enacted at Dallas in 2002. We learned that Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri had failed to report a priest who produced child pornography. We learned that Archbishop John Nienstedt failed to act against a priest he appears to have had a crush on. We learned that Bishop Richard Malone may have as many as nine priests currently serving who should have been removed from ministry under the terms of the Dallas charter.

The bishops gathered in Baltimore this week and DiNardo and his team presented proposals to confront the clergy sex abuse crisis. The Vatican ordered that no vote be taken on the proposals until a February meeting of the presidents of all the world’s episcopal conferences. DiNardo expressed his disappointment. Other bishops mumbled their anger at the Vatican. But, when the proposals were actually discussed over the next few days, it quickly became clear that they were poorly conceived, filled with ambiguities, unnecessarily expensive and bureaucratically cumbersome. They never would have received the necessary two-thirds approval of the body.       

The deeper problem with the proposals, and the reason the pope pulled them before a vote could be taken, is that they only aimed at cleaning the outside of the cup, not the inside. They aimed to introduce greater accountability and transparency into prosecution of sex abuse but they did not strike at the clerical culture that first caused the crimes of sex abuse to be covered up. Only a Jansenist – and I fear there are several who work at the USCCB – would fail to realize that the sex abuse crisis was about sex the way Watergate was about a burglary. It was the cover-up that disgusted the people of God, a cover-up that epitomized the moral rot in the clerical culture.

When Cardinal Bernardin and his friends ran the bishops’ conference, things got done. One of his auxiliaries, then-Bishop Wilton Gregory, led the 2002 meeting in Dallas that enacted the essential norms for fighting sex abuse, norms that effectively introduced zero tolerance policies for abusers and ended episcopal cover-ups when followed. In the 1980s, the bishops passed pastoral letters on peace and the economy that shaped the public debate for years.

Everything about this week’s USCCB meeting was amateurish. Pope Francis pulled the proposals because they were woefully inadequate. He has ordered the bishops to take a group retreat in January and is sending the preacher of the papal household to lead it, encouraging them to pray and discern how to move forward, instead of trying to win a news cycle or pursue a particular legal strategy. The pope recognizes that this crisis raises profound issues about what it means to lead the Christian community as a bishop. He is trying to teach them how to be bishops. Will it work? Who knows. As Dorothy Parker once said, you can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.


Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.

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