By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – As U.S. Catholic bishops gather in Baltimore next week for their general assembly, they will continue their efforts to turn a page on the clergy sex abuse scandals, navigating a tightrope act of returning to the regularly scheduled business affairs of the conference while duly acknowledging the Church’s damaged public credibility.
Most notably, the bishops will face the two-pronged challenge of electing new leadership for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as they seek to improve a strained relationship with the Vatican and also prepare to engage in the public square at home ahead of a national presidential election.
Among the most closely watched business items will be a vote on the new USCCB president to replace outgoing president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo.
DiNardo, who will give his final presidential address on Monday, is widely expected to be succeeded by Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, who has served as his vice-president for the past three years.
If elected, Gomez – who leads the nation’s largest Catholic diocese – would become the first ever-Hispanic leader to head the conference at a time when Catholic leaders have openly clashed with President Donald Trump over his treatment of migrants.
Gomez, age 67, was born in Mexico and in recent years has become one of the U.S. Church’s most vocal champions of immigrants. In his most recent archdiocesan newspaper column, he weighed in on next week’s Supreme Court review of a DACA appeal, which provides legal protection and work permits for young undocumented immigrants, lamenting the fact that the fate of nearly one million DACA recipients is now entangled in the courts, with Congress and the president failing to act.
“In this great country, we should not have young people living under the threat of deportation, their lives dependent on the outcome of a court case,” he wrote. “The issues at stake are legal, but they are also humanitarian, economic, and moral.”
Along with Gomez, candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency include Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Military Services; Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut; Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City; Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco; Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville; Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee; Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois; Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend; and Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit.
Following the election of the president, which occurs via a simple majority vote, the vice-president is chosen from the remaining nine candidates.
In addition to the top leadership posts, the bishops will also vote for new chairmen of six committees during the meeting, including the Committees on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance; Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs; Evangelization and Catechesis; International Justice and Peace; the Protection of Children and Young People; and the Committee for Religious Liberty.
At the same time as the majority of the nation’s bishops are in Baltimore, bishops from the New York region will be in Rome to take part in their ad limina visits – regularly scheduled meetings between bishops and officials from the Roman Curia, which are taking place between now and February 2020 in 15 different groups.
While these meetings normally occur every five years, the last time the U.S. bishops traveled to Rome for their ad limina was eight years ago in 2011 and 2012.
Among the attendees in Rome next week will be Buffalo’s Bishop Richard Malone who is currently under scrutiny for his handling of abuse cases. The apostolic visitation into his leadership of the diocese was completed by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn last month and awaits a Vatican determination of the facts.
Even though the ad limina visit was scheduled by the Holy See to take place at the same time as the USCCB meeting, the bishops in Rome will still have an opportunity to vote on conference officers.
“The conference has made a special accommodation for the 2019 November Plenary Assembly to allow the bishops who are in Rome for their ad limina visits to vote,” USCCB director of Public Affairs Chieko Noguchi told Crux.
“Two tellers will be chosen from the bishops in Rome who are voting members of the conference, and they will tally the paper ballots and call the results in to Baltimore, which will be added to the total before the results are announced to the assembly,” she explained.
Among the other agenda items, the bishops will vote to approve a short letter and five video scripts to supplement Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the official teaching document on the political responsibility of Catholics.
During their June 2018 meeting in Fort Lauderdale, the bishops were sharply divided on whether the current version of the document, last updated in 2015, adequately reflected the priorities of Pope Francis, with a number of bishops saying a full re-write was in order.
Others argued that the focus should be on a new medium – such as using video and social media engagement – rather than on the content. In the end, the decision was made that new materials, a letter, currently a two-page document, would be produced, along with the new videos, with an emphasis on applying “the teachings of Pope Francis to our day.”
The bishops will also vote on the revised Program of Priestly Formation, and ahead of next week’s vote, several bishops told Crux that the document could benefit from a more extensive reflection on human formation and a strengthening of protocols for whistleblowers in light of the latest revelations of clergy abuse scandals.
Looming large over the meeting will be that more than a year has passed since the Vatican pledged a full and comprehensive review of its archives to account for who knew what and when about the misdeeds of now former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose downfall sparked the latest wave of abuse scandals and prompted new questions about the lack of bishop accountability.
While no official date has been set for the report’s release, Crux has confirmed that it has undergone several drafts and its publication is widely expected before the end of the year.
Although no votes will take place directly related to bishop accountability, the bishops will also hear a report on the development of a national third-party reporting system for abuse or misconduct by bishops, which according to new Vatican guidelines must take effect by next summer.
The bishops will be in public session next week from November 11-13, marking the first time the body has met collectively since June of this year.