USCCB Review Board Chairman Says Some Bishops “Must” Resign Over Abuse

Today at Catholic Culture, Phil Lawler brings to light something most of us missed in the proceedings during the US Bishops’ (USCCB) annual fall meeting. Francesco Cesareo, the chairman of the USCCB’s National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, said yesterday that some bishops must resign “to restore trust and allow the deep wounds caused by the current crisis to heal.”

The Review Board is an organization which traces its origins to 2002, when the first major wave of the American sex abuse crisis began breaking with stories out of Boston, Massachusetts. We’ll return to Cesareo’s comments in a moment, but first I want to take a brief look at the Review Board itself, and some recent comments of other prominent former members. The original roster of the Board included, according to an official history of the body, “Frank Keating, Governor of Oklahoma” and “Anne Burke, a justice of the Illinois Court of Appeals”. Both Burke and Keating have recently been in the news because of their views on the abuse crisis.

Burke, who left the Review Board in 2004, made headlines again this October when she quit the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in protest after its leadership tried to “silence her criticism of the pope on sex abuse.” (The Knights of Malta, as they are more commonly known, suffered an internal coup at the direction of Pope Francis in late 2016/early 2017, our coverage of which can be found here.) In a letter to the Order’s American head, Peter J. Kelly, Burke wrote, “I feel that I cannot remain silent and I no longer wish to be a part of a Catholic organization that is unwilling to take a stand on these issues.” Earlier this year, Burke told the Chicago Sun Times that she “wasn’t shocked” “at all” when the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report came out:

“I think every state should convene a grand jury into this culture of secrecy that protected offenders at all costs,” said Burke, who was once interim chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops study on nationwide clerical sexual abuse in 2002.

“It was happening in Chicago, but we had to rely on files the bishops were willing to give us — and we knew there had to be more, but we had no subpoena powers,” said Burke. “We had no government authority!”

“We did a lot of research, but a lot was kept from us and we knew it,” she said.

“And shockingly, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops charter our National Review Board was appointed under did NOT include investigating the BISHOPS! Or even penalizing the bishops or Cardinals for transferring these priests,” she said.

Burke went on:

“[B]ecause trust has been so eroded due to the way the church has handled what is definitely a moral catastrophe, the just announced U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops plan to restore trust will fail if it’s not independent and if they only choose the experts, laity and the Vatican,” she said.

“They will be sadly mistaken not to involve the expertise, authority and independence of a grand jury to open secret files in order to restore the trust and healing the church so desperately needs.”

This was, of course, before anyone knew the Vatican would try to stop even the meager plan the USCCB was putting together.

Also weighing in before the latest compounding of the bishops’ scandal by the Vatican was founding Review Board member Frank Keating, who previously compared the bishops to the Mafia and resigned without an apology in 2003. Keating told Rod Dreher this summer about his reaction to the McCarrick news:

The McCarrick thing was stunning and shocking to me. Surely people knew about it, but no one talked. That was the cosa nostra, not my church. I found that incredible that that could occur. Priests that were misbehaving were outed, but not bishops, not the cardinal? That’s hypocrisy at its worst level. My view is that if you have done something like that, you say, okay, I have sinned exceedingly, I’m going to resign from the priesthood, I’m going to go live in a monastery, I’m going to scrub floors for the rest of my life. But to do evil things like McCarrick did and just pass on by is an outrage. Judas Iscariot is walking the earth, and is among the council of bishops.

When I was leading the National Review Board, if I had had any idea that McCarrick had done these things, I would have gone right for the throat. I’m from a conservative, orthodox Catholic past, but I was radicalized by hearing the parents of a victim tell us on the board about what happened to their son. I asked them where he was, thinking he would have come with them to talk about his experience. They told us that he had committed suicide. That radicalized me.

Keating concluded:

“The Catholic Church is a faith community. It’s a religious institution. It’s not la cosa nostra. Not my church,” Keating reiterates. “After this McCarrick thing, if the senior prelates of the Catholic Church look the other way, then the lay community should demand they look back. This is outrageous!”

Which brings us back to Cesareo. Lawler notes that Cesareo said that the Review Board

still wants action on the items that had been on the USCCB agenda until the Vatican intervened. He says that bishops who have betrayed their responsibilities should be called to account, since “it remains clear that some bishops have escaped the consequences of their acts of omission regarding abuse, and that little is being done to address this injustice.”

Cesareo then goes on to say that Archbishop Viganò’s accusations must not be neglected:

Archbishop Vigano’s allegations must be addressed. No stone must remain unturned. Ignoring these allegations will leave a cloud of doubt over the Church, as questions will linger. To that end, the NRB supports the USCCB’s call for a full investigation, involving laity, into the many questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick. Such an investigation by a lay body must be independent if its findings are to have credibility among the faithful and society in general.

Then — and most importantly — Cesareo says:

On September 19th, Bishop Robert Morneau, retired bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, took full responsibility for his failure to prevent abuse and asked to withdraw from public ministry, stating his intentions to spend his time in prayer for all victims of sexual abuse and perform corporal works of mercy as reparation for his failures. A grand jury report or canonical proceeding did not force him to withdraw. He did so because his conscience dictated such action.

Bishop Morneau’s actions exemplify those that some of you must take to restore trust and allow the deep wounds caused by the current crisis to heal. We know this will be difficult but it is necessary to restore trust and reconciliation with survivors of abuse. May God give you the courage, humility, and fortitude to do the right thing for the sake of his Church.

Reading this, I can’t help but wonder if Cesareo has anyone in particular in mind. But the force of his words — an imperative, not a suggestion — should not be ignored.

It’s obvious that some prominent members of the bishops’ Review Board, past and present, understand what a serious issue we’re facing. It’s also obvious that they do not think the bishops have done nearly a good enough job addressing the crisis. In that respect, at least, it seems that the bishops did their job (however inadvertently it may have been) in the creation of such a board, but some bishops clearly still don’t get it. Bishop Wenski of Miami, Florida, spent time during this week’s meetings complaining about how “outrage has become an industry.” According to J.D. Flynn of CNA, he went on:

“Life in the Church is moving on. If you’re not reading the blogs and you’re not watching TV, this is not front and center for most of our people.” Says he does not mean by that to dismiss the real pain of victims. Says bishops have to continue to be good bishops to regain trust.

This is an incredibly tone-deaf read. A bishop is often the last person to know what the people in the pews are truly concerned about. People act differently around them, and only interact with them rarely. So while “the blogs” may represent a more focused view on these issues than is the general norm, it’s also the case that many people are reading about these issues, and are very concerned.

And then there was Cardinal Cupich, who evidently expressed irritation at being asked to sign a code of conduct, at least according to Bishop Conlon of Joliet, who echoed his “chagrin,” saying that he promised to be celibate when he took his ordination vows. (Remember here that some clerics believe that it is not true that “the concept of celibacy applied to gay men, because celibacy denoted the lack of marital and sexual union between a man and woman.” I am not accusing Cupich or Conlon of anything here, only pointing out that this represents a possible mental loophole, and I’m wary of those who think signing a code of conduct that is more specific is burdensome.)

And while a couple of bishops — notably Bishop Strickland of Tyler, Texas and Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco — actually brought the relationship between homosexual clergy and abuse into the conversation, I have little confidence that we’re going to see real forward progress on any of this, especially with the Vatican standing in the way. We also face the continued scandal of having the leader of this entire meeting — Cardinal DiNardo — be among those who have recently been accused of neglect in situations of clerical abuse under their authority.

And there were other indications they still don’t get it. After all, Cardinal Mahoney, of all people, was allowed to speak. And the bishops “failed to pass a motion that would encourage the Holy See to release all legally possibly documentation regarding allegations against McCarrick.”

This whole thing is a mess. A veritable dumpster fire. There’s no denying it. And resignations are certainly in order, but the questions are who and how many? And what then?

I don’t expect answers will be forthcoming any time soon. This is going to be a slow, often grueling process. And I suspect that most resignations, if they happen at all, will come as the result of additional civil investigations, whether at the state or federal level. The real risk that the bishops face, in my estimation, is not “outrage,” as +Wenski so inaptly put it, but apathy. People who get scandal fatigue and see no evidence that solutions are forthcoming won’t just stop giving money — that’s happening now — they’ll stop coming to church at all.

And if the bishops ever had the salvation of souls at heart, that is the thing that should concern them the most. Instead, many of them still appear to be playing CYA.


Corrections: We originally reported that Bishop Wenski was from the Orlando Diocese (his former diocese) but he is now Archbishop of Miami. Also, we mistakenly wrote “Conley” in one instance when we meant “Conlon”. Bishop Conley of Lincoln was not part of this story. The errors have been corrected in the text.

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