Discover more from Grift of the Holy Spirit
The USCCB faces down its greatest opponent: reality
[a note on content: this piece contains extended discussion on the ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church]
Every November, the full United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in Baltimore to debate, discuss, and vote on new teaching documents and issues in the contemporary church. These meetings, in recent years, have not gone well. Now, that’s the third time I’ve had to open a piece with those sentences, because I recently wrote about the disastrous 2018 annual meeting, the botched response to two major sexual abuse scandals, and the hilariously inept attempts of two bishops in California and Texas to try and continue to flex their episcopal authority over social media in the aftermath. And I also wrote about the contentious 2019 meeting, its debate over how the bishops were going to communicate priorities to Catholics for the 2020 presidential election, and how one of the major players there was actually a racist and an asshole who clearly just didn’t care about ‘forming consciences for faithful citizenship’ since he didn’t have a conscience himself. But we’ve just had the 2020 meeting, at the end of one of the most tumultuous years - politically, economically, and epidemiologically - in the past century.
And, of course, when the meeting happened, the tumult was still going on. Large numbers of Republicans in Congress, and pretty much the entire executive branch, were refusing to accept the results of the recent presidential election, throwing frivolous legal challenges everywhere to see what stuck, and alleging coordinated voter fraud on an unthinkable scale, apparently to appease their very sensitive outgoing president. The USCCB meeting promised to be a balm for these times, when our learned pastoral leaders would meet and collaborate, navigating the harsh truths of today's climate and finding a thoughtful way forward.
I'm just kidding you, of course it wasn't going to be that. Bishops, as human beings, are not special. This is a theme we’ve explored before many times, but it’s worth repeating over and over. When you become a bishop, you aren’t magically endowed with better judgement than you had, and God does not sit you down for a special meeting to explain how the world works. You don’t get a pamphlet revealing the secrets of good moral discernment. You were a grumpy impotent old man before you became a bishop, and you are a grumpy impotent old man after you become a bishop, probably looking at TV and websites that are slowly driving you insane. When these bishops all meet, it is not a summit of brilliant theologians carefully examining the problems of the day, it's a group of old men all bitching about what they saw on Fox News and sniping at each other.
That’s a large part of why so many bishops in the states supported Trump’s re-election effort this year, going so far as to appear with him at campaign events. The USCCB did not unanimously support Trump - and a few bishops were brave enough to speak out against him - but the large majority of them definitely did, and actively encouraged their congregations to do the same. And it’s a large part of the reason why it was easy to find bishops who didn’t acknowledge the severity of the COVID pandemic, sued state governments to keep their churches open like the Archbishop of Minneapolis, and told Catholics they had to come to mass even when state positivity rates were over 20 percent, like the Archbishop of Milwaukee. And it’s a large part of the reason why bishops chose not to speak out after the murder of George Floyd and instead told Black Lives Matter protestors to shut up and go home, like the Archbishop of Portland. It’s why, as we’ll see, some of the bishops today totally buy into the theory that the presidential election we just had was fraudulent.
Why would we expect any different? 100 percent of the bishops are men, 100 percent of the bishops are old, nearly 100 percent of the bishops are white. Sure, Republican policies on abortion tend to increase the rate of abortions, including over the past four years. Sure, the current Republican president, through his negligence, has let a quarter million Americans die and left us all in a plague hellscape. Sure, everything the president has said and done over the past four years has revealed him to be one of the dumbest, cruellest, emptiest men in the public spotlight. But that’s the team the bishops picked, they stuck with it, and they were heading into their annual meeting in the middle of all of this.
But even if none of those events I just described had happened, this would still have been one of the most tumultuous years in the history of the American church, because a week before the USCCB’s annual meeting, the Vatican had released their report on the Theodore McCarrick scandal. The retired Archbishop of Washington DC, once one of the most prominent bishops in the country, had been outed in 2018 as a serial rapist and child abuser, and had gone through his whole career without facing consequences because of multiple failures at every level of the church hierarchy. Also, causing slightly less scandal - and this is real - the dude who ran the Pope's Instagram account accidentally liked a thirst trap photo by a thicc e-girl the day before the meeting started:
So with all of this baggage, these men - who again, are old, dumb, and not special - went into what promised to be a truly awful annual meeting, with a truly awful two weeks preceding it.
CHAPTER ONE - LOOK AT THESE STUPID IDIOTS ON THEIR WAY TO THE STUPID IDIOT CLUB
On the morning of November 7th, the AP called the presidential election for Joe Biden. Did I immediately start scouring the Twitter accounts of past G.O.T.H.S. subjects for hilarious levels of Cope? Well,
Those are all just online shitheads, of course; while it's funny to watch them squirm, they don't run the church and they can all just go french toast themselves. As for the people who actually run the church, as you saw in the Abby Johnson screenshot, the president of the USCCB put out a statement congratulating Biden on his election, and some other bishops around the country put out similar statements. This doesn’t mean that the bishops were necessarily thrilled with the idea of a Biden presidency, but that's fine, they don't have to be. Regardless of who won the election, there would still be a lot of work to do to build a more just America.
Even the bishops who clearly didn't like Biden from the start of the election cycle, by and large, understood this. Joseph Strickland clearly wasn’t happy with the election results, and he clearly wasn’t happy that the USCCB “spoke in support” of a Biden/Harris administration (they didn’t), and literally posted a YouTube video which was just the audio of “Taps”:
While this is clearly the funniest thing Strickland could have posted - at any time and in any circumstance - I initially thought that “Taps” counted as an actual, but begrudging, acknowledgment from Strickland that Biden won the election. And, at the time, that was kind of a relief. As we know, Strickland is a big fan of EWTN media, including, apparently, their recent anti-lockdown and anti-Biden bullshit. EWTN is also having trouble coming to terms with the fact that Trump lost, with Trump-loving news anchor Raymond “To Simp a Butterfly” Arroyo tweeting out that “we may never know the extent of voter fraud in this election or if those activities altered the eventual outcome”; Strickland hasn’t echoed this, and even if he believes it, he understands that the result likely isn’t changing.
Strickland wasn’t the only one who figured it out. Thomas Tobin of Providence, RI even tweeted out congratulations to Biden, although his reply guys (why does he have reply guys?) weren't having it:
Tobin's tweet is significant since he had previously tweeted out snide remarks about how this was the first Democratic ticket in a long time without a Catholic on it, an obvious jab at Biden's faith and political views. Of course, Tobin implied by that same comment that there was a Catholic on the ticket in the past few cycles, and in 2008 and 2012 that would have very obviously been Joe Biden. This is because Tobin doesn't think before he says anything, is a vile online troll, and also enabled widespread sexual abuse in his previous role in the diocese of Pittsburgh so he's a piece of shit and we should never listen to him about anything and honestly he should have lost his job as a bishop years ago. But even he can follow what's going on with the election.
But guess what folks - we got bishops who can't even do that! On November 8th, Michael Olson, bishop of Fort Worth, put out this incredible statement to his congregation:
“Dear friends in Christ, this is still a time for prudence and patience as the results of the presidential election have not been officially authenticated. It appears there will be recourse made in the courts so it is best for us in the meantime to pray for peace in our society and nation and that the integrity of our republic, one nation under God, might be maintained for the common good of all. We need to pray for each presidential candidate that each will maintain a commitment to just and due process in accord with right reason and the rule of law for the sake of justice and peace.”
And if one bishop denying reality isn't enough for you, here's Rick Stika of Knoxville, TN, on November 12th, literally in the same hour that Pope Francis called Biden to congratulate him:
And somehow this contradicts Stika's own tweets from four days earlier when he was lamenting Biden becoming the President-Elect. At least delete the old tweets dude!
Oh, and Strickland posting a YouTube video of Taps? He later clarified, on November 17th, that he actually doesn’t think Biden won the election:
I can’t get over these statements. Thomas Tobin is one of the biggest assholes in the episcopate and even he doesn’t go this far. Even accepting all of the Trump campaign’s lawsuits at face value, given the electoral and popular vote margins that the Biden campaign currently enjoys across multiple states, there’s no real legal avenue to overturn the election results. But “accepting all of the Trump campaign’s lawsuits at face value” is a stretch as it is, since most of those lawsuits have already been dismissed, and the most sophisticated strategy that I’ve seen appears to be a laughable online petition asking the Supreme Court to order a new election. Even Fox News has accepted Biden as the election winner, which makes me wonder what the fuck someone like Olson is actually reading or listening to that makes him think this is still happening.
I don’t actually wonder that, I have an educated guess: he’s still watching Taylor Marshall’s YouTube show, since Marshall was Olson's ally in his 2013 spat with Fisher-More College, and since Olson still sits on the board of the ‘Troops of Saint George’ organization that Marshall founded. And in the months since I originally wrote my big long piece on Marshall, Marshall has officially joined the Trump campaign and his show has gotten a lot lazier since it’s now just all about how great Trump is. Facing a Trump loss and an almost certain dropoff in YouTube subscribers and revenue, Marshall is pushing that the election is not over yet, attending "Stop the Steal” rallies, and emphasizing Trump's impending victory by putting an increasing number of ridiculous graphics on his screen and wearing increasingly terrible sweaters:
While it's a lot of fun to look at these stupid idiots on their way to the Stupid Idiot Club, Olson and Marshall are not winning the award for Most Baroque Catholic Reaction To The Election Results. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano - former Nuncio and current Guy Who Believes Pope Francis Is Running A Soros-Funded Sex Trafficking Ring - was always a frontrunner for the honor, and he took it by a fucking mile with his post-election open letter, summarized best in this hilarious graphic from Mike Lewis of Where Peter Is, a blog doing excellent work critiquing the reactionary conspiracy wing of Catholicism:
That octopus is actually a clearer explanation of what Vigano believes than Vigano's actual letter. Now, if you’re saying to yourself, “why did Lewis write ‘holograms’, is that some sort of dumb joke, because it clearly wouldn’t be in Vigano’s letter,” let me assure you...Vigano opens with holograms:
“Covid and Biden are two holograms, two artificial creations, ready to be adapted time and time again to contingent needs or respectively replaced when necessary with Covid-21 and Kamala Harris...This unanimity of consensus [on the election call] recalls the enthusiastic support of the Masonic Lodges on the occasion of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, which was also not free from the shadow of fraud within the Conclave and was equally desired by the deep state, as we know clearly from the emails of John Podesta and the ties of Theodore McCarrick and his colleagues with the Democrats and with Biden himself. A very nice little group of cronies, no doubt about it. With these words of the USCCB the pactum sceleris [plot to commit a crime] between the deep state and the deep church is confirmed and sealed, the enslavement of the highest levels of the Catholic hierarchy to the New World Order."
Okay, so there’s a lot going on here, even beyond hologram-Biden, who will be appearing at Coachella if we ever have Coachella again. You got some Masons, you got a fraudulent papal conclave, and uh John Podesta is in there so I guess we’re still doing Pizzagate, basically this is Vigano finally, finally knitting together the Catholic "Infiltration" and broader "QAnon" conspiracy theories into the same stories.
Remember, some American bishops - including Strickland and including Tobin, but they're not the only ones - like this Vigano guy! They shared his original 2018 letter accusing Pope Francis of being the main perpetrator of the McCarrick coverup. The same letter accused several of their fellow bishops of being secret gay pedophilia-fans and they apparently were fine shating that information with their congregations. They shared later Vigano letters where he said the 'deep church' was conspiring to bring down Trump, through a hoax pandemic. And at least two of them think it's likely that the presidential election we just had was fraudulent, with no evidence to support that view. In a little over two years, Vigano rose from an obscure retired archbishop to the Catholic church’s main critic of Pope Francis, and then way past that to the main dude pushing unreality among the Catholic church hierarchy. But a week after the presidential election, a week after Vigano’s alleged coup by the New World Order, reality snapped back and hit him in the face.
CHAPTER TWO - THIS CHAPTER WILL NOT BE FUNNY
This chapter on the McCarrick report will not be funny, because there's nothing funny to be found in the report. McCarrick perpetrated truly awful horrors on his victims and use his power and authority to manipulate everyone around him. Clergy either ignored or pushed aside the victims and their families who came forward to raise their concerns, all in the name of protecting the church’s image. You go into the report expecting it to be very bad, and it ends up being far worse. It took me a while to feel the same fury I felt when these scandals broke in 2018, because that's all been wrung out of me over the past two years. But rest assured that I got there, and was once again furious looking at all of these failures of the church, and thinking of the countless victims ignored in the name of (unsuccessfully) avoiding a PR disaster. When you look at the McCarrick report through the lens of my two favorite moral questions, "who has the power to change something?" and "did they?", the very clear answers are "so many people" and "no, they actively made things worse".
Unfortunately, perhaps the one person with the most power to change something was Pope John Paul II, who was - for many, still is! - beloved by the Catholic church so much that he was fast-tracked to sainthood within a decade of his death. Schools and churches are named after the guy. In a bit of extremely cruel irony, he's the author of the bulk of the modern church's teachings on sexual morality. But in 2000, according to the report, he was informed of credible allegations of McCarrick's abuse and decided to promote him to archbishop of Washington DC anyways. A year later, he elevated McCarrick to cardinal. McCarrick went on to become perhaps the biggest source of shame for the American church in the past century.
There aren't checks and balances on the Pope's power when it comes to deciding who gets to be a bishop. John Paul could have delayed McCarrick's appointment until he got more information. He could have asked followup questions, or gotten others at the Vatican to dig deeper. Other bishops who warned John Paul about McCarrick could have pushed harder or gone public with what they knew. And if John Paul had decided to do something after the fact, he could have easily pulled McCarrick out of his post whenever he wanted, even if he didn't go as far as Pope Francis eventually would in laicizing McCarrick.
Why didn't John Paul II do any of those things? Was he an evil man? Was he secretly destroying Catholicism from the inside? The report speculates on his thinking, and while we won’t ever get a definitive answer fifteen years after John Paul’s death, we know that he was working with incomplete information because some bishops in the US covered for McCarrick, and we know that McCarrick defended himself to John Paul personally, and we know that, tragically, John Paul was just a guy who wanted to believe his friend:
“Pope John Paul II had known McCarrick for years, having first met him in the mid-1970s. McCarrick interacted with the Pope frequently, both in Rome and during trips overseas, including at the time of the Pope’s visit to Newark in 1995 and during annual trips to Rome for the Papal Foundation. McCarrick’s direct relationship with John Paul II also likely had an impact on the Pope’s decision-making.”
Like I said: bishops aren't special, and that includes the bishop of Rome. John Paul had reality in front of him and chose to accept something else because it was easier than accepting the truth about his friend. Benedict XVI only comes off a hair better than John Paul did, because when he learned about the accusations against McCarrick, his solution was to let McCarrick take his normal retirement and just advise him to stay out of the public eye. That solution was slapped together without any consideration for what would be right for the victims; this was a decision to protect the church's image at all costs. Francis comes off a hair better than his two predecessors, but it took him five years to do something about McCarrick, and his decision to fast-track John Paul's canonization seems horrible in retrospect.
I’ve previously covered bishop Robert Barron’s response to the initial scandal breaking in 2018, which was pretty indicative of the USCCB’s response as a whole. In his booklet Letter to a Suffering Church, he wrote that these scandals weren’t reason to leave the church, but instead reason to “stay and fight”:
“Fight by raising your voice in protest; fight by writing a letter of complaint; fight by insisting that protocols be followed; fight by reporting offenders; fight by pursuing the guilty until they are punished; fight by refusing to be mollified by pathetic excuses. But above all, fight by your very holiness of life; fight by becoming the saint that God wants you to be; fight by encouraging a decent young man to become a priest; fight by doing a Holy Hour every day for the sanctification of the Church; fight by coming to Mass regularly; fight by evangelizing; fight by doing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy."
As Barron was writing those words, the theme music from Remember the Titans was likely playing in his head; this was his big inspirational speech that was going to move people to stay with the Catholic church and make it better. Now, with those words in mind, read this excerpt of the McCarrick report, on victim Priest 3’s conversation with now-deceased Bishop Edward Hughes of Metuchen:
“At one point during their meeting, which lasted “maybe twenty minutes to a half hour,” with Bishop Hughes sitting “behind his desk,” Priest 3 recalled saying, “‘Bishop Hughes, I want to tell you something that is private.’” Although he felt “ashamed” and “humiliated,” Priest 3 then told Bishop Hughes “what [had] happened. I opened my heart to him.” Priest 3 made it “very clear” to Hughes, using explicit language to describe how McCarrick had engaged in sexual conduct with him on more than one occasion and at more than one place. Although Priest 3 could not remember the exact words he used to describe the sexual activity, he stated that he expressed that “[McCarrick] touched me.” He also recalled, “I used the word ‘masturbation’ to explain what had happened.” In an interview, Priest 3 said, “Specifically, I told him about the details. I did not feel comfortable. I felt very afraid. I was trying to follow Father Smith’s direction in talking to him. But it was very hard.” Priest 3 stated that Bishop Hughes remained impassive during his account of the incidents with McCarrick. “The behavior of Hughes was to not be emotional. He was seeming very distant. Very cold. But he listened.” Priest 3 added that Hughes “was not acting like it was something that surprised him. He acted like it was something normal or something he heard about before.” After Priest 3 finished describing the incidents, Bishop Hughes advised Priest 3 to forget about McCarrick’s misconduct and to forgive McCarrick “for the good of the Church.” Hughes did not offer any further comment on what Priest 3 had reported.”
This conversation took place before McCarrick’s promotion in 2000; the Vatican asked Hughes for his opinion on McCarrick at that time and he decided to leave this story out. Now, read this story from 1994:
“In April 1994, Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan, Superior General of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma (Michigan), telephoned Nuncio Cacciavillan to express concern over potential scandal were Pope John Paul II to visit Newark [McCarrick’s archdiocese at the time]. Specifically, she told Archbishop Cacciavillan that she considered it her “duty to report” that during a spiritual retreat a priest had spoken to her of the bad moral conduct of Archbishop McCarrick with young seminarians.” Mother Mary Quentin suggested that Archbishop Cacciavillan speak directly to the priest who had supplied her the information. The Nuncio told her that the priest need not contact him, as he would “see about it” himself...Following his consultation with Cardinal Hickey, Nuncio Cacciavillan “had the impression” that what the priest told him was the product of “possible slander or exaggeration” and that the Mother Superior was reporting the allegations against Archbishop McCarrick because “she wanted to make herself appear important.””
You can see the problem with the rallying cry that I read and heard preached at my parish, that even if the bishops had failed, the rest of us could stand up for the church; the rest of us did stand up for the church, and the bishops said “I think this nun bitch is looking for attention”. Barron can tell us it’s time to “stay and fight”, but people did raise their voices in protest, they did write letters of complaint, they did insist that protocols be followed, they did report offenders, they did pursue the guilty, and they refused to be mollified by pathetic excuses, and they did all of this for decades. There are examples throughout the report of laity and religious raising their voices to protect victims and do what's right, even if it tarnished the church's image. And it didn’t change a thing because the institutions of the church up through the literal Pope decided that they didn’t want to do shit about this. To Barron's other point, if you want to do a Holy Hour or go to Mass regularly, you’re not hurting anyone, but you’re also not changing the answers to the questions “who has the power to change something?” and “will they?”, and the church desperately needs to change the answers to those questions. Allegations against McCarrick first surfaced in the 1980s, McCarrick didn’t face any repercussions until 2018 when he was 88 years old and retired, the blame for that delay lies with only one group of people, and it’s not the laity.
Because of that delay, McCarrick voted in multiple papal conclaves, he was part of the USCCB’s governance, he was one of the most prominent bishops in the country, he helped write the church’s sexual abuse policies, and the bishops and the Vatican kept looking the other way. Reality was in front of them and they chose to reject it. So when I make fun of the bishops for not accepting the reality of the presidential election, know that the power structure of the church is very experienced in rejecting reality, and maybe that’s a sign that the power structure of the church should no longer exist as it does today.
One of the more notable takeaways from the report is that there was an attempt, in 2012, to dig deeper into the case against McCarrick, when the Apostolic Nuncio to the US got tasked with following up on some allegations. The Nuncio never did, so McCarrick continued to avoid consequences. The notable part is that the Nuncio was Mean Mister Octopus himself, Carlo Maria Vigano.
So, the report did answer an important question for Catholics everywhere: “hey why does Vigano keep posting and blaming Pope Francis for the McCarrick scandal?” Turns out he was trying to deflect blame from himself, since his own negligence helped get the church into this mess in the first place. The report doesn’t give a reason for Vigano’s lack of action, and honestly the reason isn’t that important. Even in the best-case scenario for Vigano - which, I suppose, is that he forgot to check his email that morning - it was his failure to do his literal job that helped keep the church in this mess.
Most of what Vigano has alleged in his original 2018 screed has fallen apart in the wake of this report. Pope Francis didn't "undo sanctions" on McCarrick because none of Francis' predecessors had sanctioned McCarrick to begin with. Francis wasn't happily enabling McCarrick's villainy, he's the guy who actually did something meaningful. McCarrick didn't have a say in other LIBERAL AND MAYBE GAY bishops being appointed in America, Francis' appointments seemed to basically ignore McCarrick's recommendations entirely.
Of the American bishops who rushed to embrace Vigano and smear their colleagues in 2018 - bishops who currently oversee diocese like Tyler, Providence, and Springfield, and actual big important archdiocese like Denver, Phoenix, and San Francisco - zero have decided to walk it back after the McCarrick report. Why would they? Why would they start accepting reality now? Reality is miserable: a bunch of old men decided to look out for each other even when faced with unspeakable crimes. It's just easier to believe a gay conspiracy where you can’t possibly be blamed for anything. EWTN is still covering for Vigano, as Raymond "The Simp Chronicles Part One: It's Simpin Simpin" Arroyo actually did an interview with him on November 12:
This really doesn't sit right considering that the EWTN merch shop sells hoodies that "show your loyalty to the One Holy Apostolic church," and I think you can either be in schism or sell the hoodies but really have to pick one:
So our presidential election concluded and bishops were either openly pissed about it or openly in denial. Then the McCarrick report came out a week later and bishops were all reminded of the failures of their church and how high up those failures went, and some of those bishops were reminded of their own involvement in separate coverups, like the widespread abuse scandal in Pennsylvania, but are still choosing to ignore that reality. Then, a week later, all of these guys got on a Zoom call for a few days. I was not confident that the call was going to go well. Because, of course, this wasn’t the first time that the bishops had met to try and fix clergy sexual abuse.
CHAPTER THREE - I WOULD PREFER NOT TO GO TO PRISON
While reporting on clergy sexual abuse dates back to at least the 1980s, and while allegations of sexual abuse date back earlier than that, the 2001 and 2002 “Spotlight” reporting in the Boston Globe was an obvious turning point in perception of the church, since it revealed the broad scope and high-level approval of the scandal that Catholic laity had previously found unthinkable. It triggered investigations in diocese around the world, and when the USCCB met in Dallas in 2002 to do something about it, the meeting was broadcast on cable news.
What came out of that meeting was the Dallas Charter, a collection of policies and procedures that the American Catholic church would use for the next two decades to police and prevent sexual abuse by clergy. A lot of the Dallas Charter was actually very successful, as reported clergy sexual abuse dropped off sharply in the States after 2002. A large part of that was that everyone who worked with the church started to get standardized training in recognizing and reporting child sexual abuse. For example: one summer in college, I volunteered as an aide at a Catholic school. I was there for eight weeks and didn’t get paid, but before I could even do that, I got fingerprinted, background-checked, and I had to spend a Saturday in a training where I watched a video about a pedophile who ran a roller rink (this was in 2008, but my understanding is that the church has not updated the video). People have to do this before they’re allowed to do the readings at Mass. And it turns out that when the church actually give a shit and does this, it works, and you end up with fewer abusers working in the church.
The other piece of the Dallas Charter that worked really well was the “zero-tolerance” policy that the church put in place. Basically, if you were a priest with a credible allegation of sexual abuse after 2002, you weren’t getting turfed to another parish, you were getting removed from the priesthood and reported to the actual police. The policy was so effective, and looks so intuitive when you write it out, that it was honestly a surprise that the church didn’t adopt it until 2002. If you were an abusive priest, you only got one strike and you were out. If you were a priest covering for an abuser, you only got one strike and you were out. If you were a lay employee and an abuser, or covering for another abuser, you only got one strike and you were out.
But there was one giant blind spot: the Dallas Charter policies did a good job governing priests and lay employees of the church, but they specifically - and, perhaps, deliberately - left out bishops. If you were a priest covering for an abuser, there were severe consequences, but if you were a bishop covering for an abuser, you actually didn’t lose your job. You didn’t face any consequences at all. That’s why people like Thomas Tobin or Alfred Schlert or Roger Mahony or Daniel DiNardo or too many others all got caught covering for abusive priests in their diocese, and just all kept doing their jobs. And unfortunately, it was bishops like these who were in the room writing the Dallas Charter.
But the Archbishop of Washington, Ted McCarrick - who had been promoted by the Pope two years earlier despite warnings, including warnings from other American bishops - was one of the main people leading the Dallas Charter team. The Dallas Charter didn’t lay out consequences for bishops who covered for abuse, and didn’t lay out consequences for bishops who perpetrated abuse, and put the bishops in charge of all of the abuse investigations. The reality was that the bishops had failed to protect victims for decades, but the 2002 bishops rejected that reality, wrote a policy that also rejected that reality, and hey, it just happened to work out really well for one of the writers, who wouldn’t be exposed as an abuser for another 16 years.
He did get exposed, eventually, and now he’s...well, that’s the other thing about McCarrick: very few people actually know where he is right now. Pope Francis removed him from the priesthood entirely, but as McCarrick had entered seminary as a teenager, that left the church with an 88-year-old man who had never rented an apartment before, and they were reluctant to leave him out in the cold. But at the same time, McCarrick spent decades in the spotlight and the church never wanted him anywhere near a reporter ever again, so their original solution - this is real - was to send him to live in a friary in the middle of nowhere in Kansas, where there would be no dogged reporters or protestors. As you might expect, the friary did not especially want him there, and took him only after several other places said no; as one of the priests who took McCarrick in said, presumably through gritted teeth, “our mission is very much tied up with helping people to amend their life, to change their life, to repent. Christians, even when it’s difficult, are called to show mercy.” One of the parishoners in Kansas said of the friars “I think they’re hoping the good Lord calls him home, and they won’t have to worry about the situation anymore.” After a reporter from Slate was able to track McCarrick down - he still denies everything, by the way - the church moved McCarrick to a new location which isn’t publicly known. The church is desperately, desperately hoping he will just die soon and everyone will forget about him, which would be a lot easier than having to own up to the reality of what happened. The church is certainly not hoping that Catholics will remember how influential McCarrick was in the church for decades, including in writing the literal sexual abuse policies.
The omission of bishops from any accountability to the Dallas Charter wasn’t an oversight that we just figured out when McCarrick got outed: that blind spot in the policy came up at the time. When McCarrick came back from Dallas in 2002, he held a Q&A session with all of his priests in the Arch of Washington, and one of them, Peter Daly, called him on it:
"I went on to address the Dallas charter and its zero-tolerance policy. I noted that the charter held priests to strict account, but there was no accounting for bishops, archbishops or cardinals. They were exempted, I said, and they shouldn't be. We should all be held accountable to the civil law, to public scrutiny and to our people. Then I added angrily, 'Our people understand sin. Everybody sins. What they don't understand is cover-up and the failure to protect our children. Everybody, including cardinals, should be held fully accountable.' McCarrick was clearly uncomfortable with my pointed reference to cardinals and with my emotion. He interrupted me and said, 'I'm not sure that this is the time and place for us to have this discussion.'"
As we now know, McCarrick likely thought the time and place for that discussion was "never, because I would prefer not to go to prison". The bishops met to solve the biggest crisis in the modern era of the church, and they failed, because their solution was to trust everything to the bishops. So they had to meet again in 2018 to solve the crisis again, and as I've discussed in past pieces, they failed, and their ultimate policy solution was to continue trusting everything to the bishops. So when the USCCB met again in 2020 on a Zoom call, after rejecting the reality of the presidential election and the pandemic and the appalling racial injustice in this country, and as they were still struggling to swallow the reality of the McCarrick report, I wasn't confident they were going to succeed this time.
CHAPTER FOUR - THE DAMN-DALORIAN
Things did not get off to a good start when the USCCB posted this - I swear this is real - from their official Twitter account, the day before the meeting:
They eventually deleted the tweet and issued an apology, presumably after being bombarded with GIFs of Baby Yoda tearfully telling a bishop that his son had been abused by a priest and the bishop replying “are you just saying this because you want to be famous”. Thankfully, the USCCB actually took the McCarrick report seriously, and wasted no time at the first open session of their meeting calling out the true villains: those asshole reporters who reported on this. As the current Nuncio put it in his opening address: “There is... a lack of trust and belief in those who are supposed to have authority... and manipulation by the press, which, at times, cares little for the truth but which erodes the confidence and trust of the people in the authority of the press." Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield contended that the media were just using the report to smear the legacy of John Paul II, which is a bold statement considering that the report came from the Vatican and states pretty unambiguously that John Paul could have done a lot more to avoid this situation in the first place. Obviously this is a tough one for me to get my head around: the media’s only crime was reporting accurately on church politics, while the church’s only crime was repeated widespread rape of children for decades and continued coverups and stonewalling of the justice system in order to deny justice for the victims, which continues to this day. Oh shit, I guess if I write it out like that, only one of those parties is literally committing a crime.
The most telling testimony during the McCarrick discussion came from Bill Wack, bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee. Wack identified - correctly, in my opinion - that the bishops didn’t really have an accountability structure that made sense. Someone like McCarrick could get away with terrible crimes, and other bishops - like some people still currently in the USCCB - could get away with terrible coverups, because bishops don’t really answer to anyone. As Wack put it, there was a need for greater accountability, and he had the solution ready to go: the bishops needed to be accountable...to each other. As he put it, “We must pray for a brother, we must correct a brother, we must help our brothers. I'm committed to doing that, and I hope you're committed to doing that for me, too.”
I don’t want to give Wack too much of a hard time, even though his solution is basically having bishops text each other going “doing a brother check: you’re not raping a kid, right?” and just kind of hoping that all works out. I don’t want to give Wack too much of a hard time, even though “we bishops have to look out for each other” is the exact thinking that caused these scandals in the first place, and it will inevitably cause more in the future. Ultimately, I can’t give him a hard time because he’s not the only one that thinks this; based on the policies of the USCCB, this is clearly still the party line on bishop accountability for sexual abuse. Hell, let’s look at what the USCCB wrote in their “Statement of Episcopal Committment” in 2002 , after the “Spotlight” report, and after the USCCB drafted Ted McCarrick to draw up some new church policies:
“Participating together in the college of bishops, we are responsible to act in a manner that reflects both effective and affective collegiality, including fraternal support, fraternal challenge and fraternal correction. In a spirit of collegiality and fraternity, while respecting the legitimate rights of bishops who are directly responsible to the Holy See, we commit ourselves to the following: Within each of our provinces, we will assist each other to interpret correctly and implement, within our respective jurisdictions, the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, always respecting Church law and striving to reflect the Gospel.”
In other words, check on your brothers, help each other out, but you’re not accountable to anyone besides your brother bishops, a policy that has already proven a failure multiple times. According to Wack, that’s the solution we need, once again. Let’s just try the same thing where we can’t be held accountable, where we don’t lose our jobs or face any consequences for covering up widespread abuse, and just kind of hope it actually sticks this time.
And then…that was it. A little less than 45 minutes and the discussion on the McCarrick report had concluded. The bishops spent 90 minutes in closed session discussing it, and then spent 40 minutes discussing it publicly, during which they said “damn that sucks though”, and then moved on, presumably hoping that Catholics would someday forget that this all happened, McCarrick would die soon, and nobody would think about this ever again. The first day of the meeting even ended early, so it’s not like they cut off the discussion so they could stay on top of their packed agenda. There was no discussion of any failures, no discussion of any potential changes in policy to prevent anything like this from happening again, just nothing.
They didn't touch the issue at all the next day, although USCCB president Jose Gomez of Los Angeles made a surprise announcement: with Joe Biden soon occupying the White House, Gomez was very concerned about a Catholic president who didn't share the church's views on abortion policy, and would be a source of "confusion" for the faithful. As a result, Gomez would be forming a new working group with other bishops to lead engagement with the Biden administration on issues where he doesn’t follow Catholic teaching (Strickland’s tweet alleging that the election was not yet decided came after this statement from Gomez). And while that may sound very adversarial right out of the gate, I'm sure they did something similar for Trump, let me just check the USCCB's statement from the 2016 election:
"The Bishops Conference looks forward to working with President-elect Trump to protect human life from its most vulnerable beginning to its natural end...And we will look for the new administration's commitment to domestic religious liberty, ensuring people of faith remain free to proclaim and shape our lives around the truth about man and woman, and the unique bond of marriage that they can form. Every election brings a new beginning. Some may wonder whether the country can reconcile, work together and fulfill the promise of a more perfect union. Through the hope Christ offers, I believe God will give us the strength to heal and unite."
You know what, maybe it would have been better if they had just posted Baby Yoda GIFs this year.
EPILOGUE - THE COMPROMISE POSITION
Mike Lewis, the guy who made that helpful octopus graphic, wrote a reflection on the McCarrick report for Where Peter Is titled “Realities are Greater Than Ideas”:
“Where his predecessors often approached problems by drawing straight lines based on strict adherence to objective moral principles (absolutely no access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried; no civil unions that in any way accommodate same-sex couples, ever), [Francis] will look into the messy realities of everyday life to see what opportunities are still possible...Francis is trying to teach us that when we respond to serious problems in the real world, we must be honest about our expectations, limitations, impressions, biases, projections, and ideals. Ideas are very often rooted in a vision of perfection that is completely unrealistic or unattainable. When our worldview is primarily shaped by ideas that are completely detached from reality, we can easily become ideologues and fundamentalists. It is vital that we learn to ‘recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits’.”
Lewis is correct, and so is Pope Francis: reality is a mess, and that makes being a bishop a very difficult job. You have to find a way to work around gray areas, to meet all sorts of people where they are, and bring the Gospel with you through uncertain times. Francis communicates about this differently than his predecessors did, and it can be difficult for some bishops - who, again, are all old men - to get their heads around that new reality as well.
But there are also parts of reality that aren’t very messy, that aren’t that hard to grasp, and the bishops can’t even figure those out. The reality of who won the presidential election is not complicated - and as time has gone on, it has become less complicated - and some bishops still don’t get it. The reality that Donald Trump, through his negligence, presided over one of the largest mass casualty events in American history, is obvious - around a thousand people are dying daily at this point in the pandemic - and the USCCB party line was to re-elect him because he was so pro-life. The reality of institutional racism in our country is impossible to ignore, but the USCCB does their best to ignore it anyway. The reality of who the Pope is and what he teaches is pretty straightforward, but plenty of bishops refuse to accept that. But most importantly, the reality is that the bishops cannot police themselves when it comes to the abuse crisis. They never could. And every time a new scandal breaks, the bishops say “trust us, we’ll fix it for real this time, and nobody else can fix it but us”. And we just mark time until the next abuse scandal. They can't fix it, they're not special, they're gullible old men. Which brings me to my proposal for reforming the USCCB.
I've always had difficulties with how the USCCB chooses to lead the church, but after the Pennsylvania and McCarrick scandals first broke in 2018, I landed on the position that the church would not ever fix these problems unless laity had the power to remove bishops from their positions. I don’t know all of what that could look like in practice, but if laity in each diocese had the power to remove bishops, some of the villains of the Pennsylvania grand jury report wouldn't still be bishops today, but right now they still are, and some of them serve in the same diocese where they covered up abuse. If laity had the power to remove bishops, maybe McCarrick would have been removed much earlier and not, I don't know, been part of the team who wrote the church's 2002 policy on preventing child abuse. If laity had the power to remove bishops, maybe bishops would think twice before sharing wild conspiracy theories or election misinformation.
But after watching our bishops for the past two years, I'd say "laity should have the power to remove bishops" is now my compromise position, and my preferred position has become "we don't need bishops anymore". And if that sounds extreme, I want to take a hard look at what they do for the church today.
Do they represent the church well in the public sphere, serving as moral leaders in a tumultuous time? Well, they can't agree on whether racism is bad, or on whether we should have done something about the quarter million people who died from COVID, or on who our next president is. Do the bishops keep us connected to Rome and the Pope? Well, they can't agree on whether the Pope is taking orders from George Soros, or whether we should listen to him on issues like capital punishment, or whether he's legitimate at all. Do the bishops protect us? No, they can’t. They never could, they have failed every single time, to the extent that if you know someone sexually attracted to minors, the best advice you can give them is to join the priesthood and hustle to become a bishop, where they can enjoy full institutional protection from any professional or criminal consequences. The reality is that bishops are not able to police themselves, and they haven't gotten their heads around that reality yet, because "accepting reality" seems to be a big weakness across the USCCB, and it makes the entire bishops' conference an active impediment to the work of Catholics everywhere.
A church without bishops, of course, is not going to be a reality anytime soon, and it's not a reality that's easy to imagine. But it's an easier reality to imagine than an institutional church in any way worse than what we have now.
Grift of the Holy Spirit is a series by Tony Ginocchio detailing stories of the weirdest, dumbest, and saddest members of the Catholic church. You can subscribe via Substack to get notified of future installments.
Sources used for this piece include:
Arocho Esteves, Junno. “Vatican Report Reveals Omissions in Archbishop Vigano's 'Testimony'.” National Catholic Reporter, 10 Nov. 2020, www.ncronline.org/news/accountability/vatican-report-reveals-omissions-archbishop-viganos-testimony.
Daly, Peter. “Confrontation Time: Cardinal McCarrick and Me in 2002.” National Catholic Reporter, 20 Aug. 2018, www.ncronline.org/news/accountability/parish-diary/confrontation-time-cardinal-mccarrick-and-me-2002.
Gibson, David. “The Double Agent.” Commonweal Magazine, 1 Oct. 2020, www.commonwealmagazine.org/double-agent.
Graham, Ruth. “Theodor McCarrick Still Won't Confess.” Slate Magazine, 3 Sept. 2019, slate-com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/slate.com/human-interest/2019/09/theodore-mccarrick-archbishop-interview-kansas-sexual-abuse.amp?usqp=mq331AQFKAGwASA%3D&_js_v=0.1#aoh=16055832045274&referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com&_tf=From%20%251%24s&share=https%3A%2F%2Fslate.com%2Fhuman-interest%2F2019%2F09%2Ftheodore-mccarrick-archbishop-interview-kansas-sexual-abuse.html.
Lamb, Christopher. “The McCarrick Report: Will the Bishops Who Supported Viganò Now Correct the Record?” The Tablet, 13 Nov. 2020, www.thetablet.co.uk/blogs/1/1649/the-mccarrick-report-will-the-bishops-who-supported-vigan-now-correct-the-record-.
Lewis, Mike. “McCarrick's (and Viganò's) Reckoning.” Where Peter Is, 10 Nov. 2020, wherepeteris.com/mccarricks-and-viganos-reckoning/.
Lewis, Mike. “Realities Are Greater than Ideas.” Where Peter Is, 13 Nov. 2020, wherepeteris.com/realities-are-greater-than-ideas/.
Ribnek, Melinda. “The Stories of the Survivors.” Where Peter Is, 12 Nov. 2020, wherepeteris.com/the-stories-of-the-survivors/.
Secretariat of State of the Holy See. “Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, 1930-2017.” Vatican City State, 10 Nov. 2020, www.vatican.va/resources/resources_rapporto-card-mccarrick_20201110_en.pdf.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Coming Together as Faithful Citizens for the Common Good.” 9 November 2016. https://www.usccb.org/news/2016/coming-together-faithful-citizens-common-good.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “A Statement of Episcopal Commitment.” 13 Nov. 2002, http://www.bishop-accountability.org/resources/resource-files/churchdocs/2002_11_13_USCCB_AStatement.htm.
White, Christopher. “Big Questions but Brief Discussion of McCarrick Report at US Bishops' Meeting.” National Catholic Reporter, 16 Nov. 2020, www.ncronline.org/news/accountability/big-questions-brief-discussion-mccarrick-report-us-bishops-meeting.