U.S. Catholic bishops began their fall meeting Monday, with an agenda that includes the election of new leaders — a vote that may signal whether they want to be more closely aligned with Pope Francis ' agenda or not.
Several of the 10 candidates to be the next president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are part of its powerful conservative wing, and have not fully embraced some of the pope's priorities, such as focusing more on the marginalized than on culture-war battles.
The USCCB also will be marking the 20th anniversary of its adoption of policies designed to root out sexual abuse and abusers in the priesthood — measures adopted amid the white-hot scandals of 2002 when The Boston Globe exposed widespread abuse and cover-up.
Outside groups are calling on the bishops to use the anniversary to renew efforts to help survivors heal from abuse, increase lay involvement and consider making another apology to victims.
The opening sessions of the meeting on Monday were held in private. The official highlight of the gathering in Baltimore is the election Tuesday of the next USCCB president, who will succeed Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles.
Usually this is a formality, with the bishops elevating the conference's vice president to the post. But this year's election is wide open because the current VP — Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron — will turn 75 soon, making him ineligible to serve.
The 10 candidates range from the relatively moderate Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle to San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, a staunch conservative. Cordileone made headlines this year by barring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Franciscan, from receiving Communion in the archdiocese because of her support for abortion rights.
There is no clear-cut front runner, though some Catholic media outlets on both sides of the ideological spectrum have identified Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Services as a strong contender.
The candidates were nominated by their fellow bishops, who bypassed several of their colleagues who have been elevated to cardinal by Pope Francis.
It remains to be seen if the bishops will make another apology for the sex abuse crisis during the meeting, but they have a time of prayer and reflection in observance of the charter's 20th anniversary scheduled. Bishops have voiced remorse for the scandal at various points over the past two decades.
A coalition of lay advocacy groups organized an online petition pushing for a new apology that has gained more than 1,100 signatures.
The petition acknowledges the bishops' June 2002 public contrition in the preamble to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the document of reforms they passed in response to the scandal. The petition also calls for an audit of a new reporting system for complaints against bishops — enacted in 2019 to close a prior loophole in the charter — and for laypeople to play a greater role in such investigations.
While 20 years ago the bishops apologized for "too often failing victims and the Catholic people in the past," petition organizer Kevin Hayes said many don't know or remember that. He cited Pope Francis' trip this summer to Canada, where Francis said he was "deeply sorry" to Indigenous survivors of abusive and culturally destructive residential schools.
"This is a good opportunity to not only remind people the bishops had apologized but reaffirm that apology," said Hayes, of Catholics for Change in Our Church. The Pennsylvania group was created after a 2018 grand jury report into abuse in the church.
Gomez reflected on the milestone year in June, the month the charter passed in 2002.
"This is not a time of celebration, but a time of continued vigilance and determination," said Gomez, in a statement. "We remain firm with Pope Francis' commitment, 'that everything possible must be done to rid the Church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused.'"
But David Clohessy, a longtime leader in the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, isn't among those calling for a new apology: "All the apologies on Earth don't keep a single kid safe. Promptly suspending molesters and harshly disciplining enablers, those steps both protect kids now and help survivors heal."
He was present at the 2002 Dallas meeting, heard then-USCCB President Wilton Gregory, now a cardinal and theb archbishop of Washington, share a litany-like confession of bishops' failures and coverups, and was given time to speak.
Clohessy said that for all the charter's reforms – which banned any abusers from ministry for even a single offense – its fatal flaw is that it doesn't punish those who covered up abuse. In a few cases, bishops have resigned amid revelations of cover-up but have rarely been punished.
"This may sound dreadfully cynical, but I hope there's never another bishop who apologizes," said Clohessy. "I think apologies in this crisis lull Catholics into complacency. Worse, they imply that everything's fixed."
Steven Millies, an expert on the Catholic Church in the U.S., called Gregory's 2002 apology a historic moment and a powerful gesture, but said in an email that another highly visible one would not be amiss, especially since abuse revelations have continued.
"It's a terrible mistake to treat the way the church failed its people as a solved problem because it is not a solved problem, even as the Charter turns 20," said Millies, a professor of public theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
He considers the charter a good faith effort by the conference, which he said has no authority, but only "modestly successful" because each bishop gets to decide to what extent they follow it.
"This is a church controlled more by individual bishops, and the Charter could not overcome that obstacle. That good faith is not really enough," he said.
Once the new president is elected, one outside Catholic group plans to send the conference a slate of restorative justice proposals developed with clergy sex abuse survivors who still love and participate in the church, said the Rev. Thomas Berg, group member and moral theology professor at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York, in an email.
The proposals include developing a national center to equip the church in restorative justice practices, creating a permanent healing garden, instituting an annual day of prayer and penance for healing and reconciliation and initiating trauma-informed training for clergy, lay leaders and others.
They hope embracing restorative justice could begin a "sea change in the institutional Church's response to the crisis--toward new approaches that can promise deeper healing," Berg said.
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