Catholic bishops of the United States open a national meeting Monday under dramatic circumstances.
A pandemic has compelled them to gather virtually from far-flung dioceses. A hard-fought presidential election has caused sharp divisions in their own ranks, with some bishops harshly critical of President-elect Joe Biden.
And just a few days ago, the Vatican released a report detailing how clerics in the U.S. and abroad failed to hold ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to account until many years after suspicions of serial sexual misconduct became widespread.
“The shadow of the McCarrick report hangs over this meeting,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director at a Washington-based clergy network called Faith in Public Life.
McCarrick, who was defrocked by Pope Francis last year, headed up dioceses in Metuchen and Newark, New Jersey, and in Washington, D.C. The report found that three decades of bishops, cardinals and popes dismissed or downplayed reports of McCarrick’s misconduct with young men.
For U.S. clergy, one of the most embarrassing revelations was that three New Jersey bishops — all now deceased — provided “inaccurate and incomplete information” about McCarrick to the Vatican as part of an investigation in 2000, just a few months before he became a cardinal and archbishop of Washington.
The bishops will discuss the McCarrick report twice Monday, first in a private session and later in a public livestream, according to the communications office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Among the opening speakers at USCCB's two-day meeting will be its president, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez. He has described the report as “another tragic chapter in the Church’s long struggle to confront the crimes of sexual abuse by clergy.”
Other scheduled speakers include the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre, and one of the conference's top advisers on the prevention of clerical sex abuse, National Review Board chair Suzanne Healy.
Gehring noted that the U.S. bishops already vary in their views of Pope Francis, with some skeptical of his exhortations on issues such as climate change and social justice, and said it's important to avoid having the latest McCarrick revelations further divide the U.S. church.
“It will be a disservice to survivors if bishops allow the report to create even more factions and fissures,” Gehring said. “They need to address the moral and systemic failures revealed in the report head-on.”