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Cupich and Wuerl Propose Alternative Sex Abuse Response Plan. Is Anyone Really Surprised?

Image courtesy of Archdiocese of Boston/Flickr (CC 2.0)

It’s a story I’ve seen described as both a “shock” and a “bombshell.” But is it really?

Catholic News Agency (CNA) reported yesterday that Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich and the disgraced-into-resignation-but-kept-in-power-anyway Cardinal Donald Wuerl “collborated extensively on a recently proposed policy for handling abuse allegations against bishops”.

To cut to the quick, the American bishops had a plan that involved an independent commission lead by the laity to look into allegations of abuse against Catholic bishops. The Wuerl/Cupich plan, on the other hand, pushed responsibility for investigations to metropolitan archbishops — a hierarchical structure most Catholics these days don’t hear much about. Metropolitans, if accused, would be investigated by senior suffragan bishops.

According to CNA:

Sources in Rome and Washington, DC told CNA that Wuerl and Cupich worked together on their alternative plan for weeks, and presented it to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops before the U.S. bishops’ conference assembly in Baltimore. Cupich and Wuerl are both members of Congregation for Bishops.

And while Cupich has certainly taken the lead on this particular dance floor — EWTN’s Fr. Raymond de Souza described his abrupt intervention on the first day of the meeting as “a manifestation of influence and assertion of power” — sources inside the Congregation for Bishops told CNA that the idea was known as “Wuerl’s plan.” The picture that comes into sharper focus upon reviewing the reporting from the annual fall bishops’ meeting is that there were a handful of players at the conference who were in the know about what Rome wanted, and then there was everyone else. As Fr. de Souza noted:

It would stand to reason that, if the Holy See entrusted the Chicago archbishop with the news that the U.S. bishops were to be blocked in their reform proposals, Cardinal Cupich’s proposals also originated in the Holy See and are a preview of the path the Holy Father intends to take in February 2019.

Although many seem taken aback at Wuerl’s continued involvement, I admit that I am somewhat mystified by their surprise. We have seen orchestration, manipulation, and the ecclesiastical version of political theater from this Vatican time and time again. Cronyism is, and has been, a driving force behind much that has transpired in this papacy, and Francis is known to reward even his most repellent allies, which explains why Cardinal Godfried Danneels — caught on tape trying to talk a sex abuse victim out of going public — was standing next to him on the loggia the night of his election to the papacy, and was also invited personally by the pope to both family synods. Danneels had helped see to it that Bergoglio became pope. His loyalty was rewarded. It was the same story with McCarrick, until the rug was swept out from under him by the revelation of allegations that he abused minors. which surfaced earlier this year.

Wuerl, like McCarrick before him, is a power player. Unlike McCarrick, Wuerl’s connection to the sex abuse scandals is apparently distant enough — despite his significant role in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report — that he has not fallen completely from grace. Bishop Martin Holley, recently removed from his post at the diocese of Memphis, publicly stated his suspicion that Wuerl, through his position on the Congregation for Bishops, saw to his ouster in retaliation for Holley’s earlier opposition to Wuerl being appointed to the Vatican Secretariat of State. True or false, the fact that the accusation is credible is evidence of just how influential Wuerl remains from the shadows beyond the resignation of his see — a see, I would remind readers, he still controls until a replacement is named. That replacement, incidentally, was expected during this week’s meetings, but as of yet, no name has been forthcoming. One of the most strongly-rumored frontrunners, Cardinal Joseph “Nighty Night Baby” Tobin of Newark, New Jersey — who faces a petition drive with thousands of signatures from Catholics opposing his appointment to the Washington Archdiocese — flatly denied to George Neumayr of The American Spectator that he would be taking Wuerl’s place in DC. But if not him, then who, and perhaps more importantly, when? Media sources I spoke with who were reporting from the bishops meeting said that no mention was made of a replacement, nor when an announcement could be expected.

Which brings us back to the pre-meeting collusion between Wuerl and Cupich. Though it is not surprising, it is certainly a matter for concern. Many of the faithful believe that the bishops can’t be trusted to police themselves on these matters, and that kicking these allegations upstairs is only going to lead to more of the bad “clericalism” the pope pretends to care so much about. More good old boys clubs. More obscurity. More CYA. Less transparency. More incredibly poor decision making. Exactly the sorts of things prelates of his stripe seem to be in favor of.

One Church leader who has been outspoken on the issue is Bishop Strickland of Tyler Texas, who was also the first to support the Viganò allegations earlier this year. Strickland tweeted about the Wuerl/Cupich story early this morning: “Watch this closely. This crisis needs the strongest lay voice possible.”

The silver lining in this dark cloud is that these clandestine attempts to hold on to power are having an unanticipated effect. The absolute hubris of the bishops most closely aligned with Rome is keeping the issues in play — and the anger that comes from how they have been handled — front and center in the Catholic consciousness. Every time that anger begins to cool a little, they enthusiastically stoke the fire. And if what we’re seeing really is a preview of the meeting between the pope and the global heads of bishops’ conferences in February, that’s not going away any time soon.

Until they give us real solutions, we mustn’t let off the pressure. And though they have other sources of income, we should ensure our money goes to worthy causes — namely, causes from which the bishops have nothing to gain.

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