ROME—If a picture is worth a thousand words, the group photo of the pope with leaders of the American Catholic Church ahead of the crisis talks on the sex abuse scandal sure says a lot. Three of the five in the photo are accused of turning a blind eye to clerical sex abuse, including Pope Francis himself.
On the eve of the meeting, Cardinal Daniel Di Nardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, was accused by the Associated Press of ignoring credible reports that Father Manuel LaRosa-Lopez, a priest under his jurisdiction, was sexually abusing young children. LaRosa-Lopez was arrested on Tuesday night just as Di Nardo was boarding his flight to Rome.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, also in attendance, is accused of ignoring a letter sent to him about Theodore McCarrick, the erstwhile archbishop of Washington, who has been formally accused of sexually abusing an altar boy and engaging in sexual relations with seminarians.
The pope is accused by Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal nuncio to the United States, of ignoring sanctions put in place by his predecessor against McCarrick, effectively allowing him to represent the church even though he was a known predator. None of the men have denied the allegations.
The meeting, which Di Nardo requested several weeks ago, was meant to focus on McCarrick and the accusations against the pope as well as the damning Pennsylvania Grand Jury report that chronicled decades of abuse by hundreds of priests against more than 1,000 children. But a steady stream of scandals has been unfolding since then,now including those accusations against Di Nardo himself, which surely made the first few minutes of the encounter slightly awkward. The Vatican video of the men gathering for the photo shoot shows them stoic and silent.
Very little news came out of the closed-door meeting, which lasted four hours. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on Di Nardo’s behalf but the Vatican, so far, has not.
“We are grateful to the Holy Father for receiving us in audience,” said the conference statement. “We shared with Pope Francis our situation in the United States — how the Body of Christ is lacerated by the evil of sexual abuse. He listened very deeply from the heart. It was a lengthy, fruitful, and good exchange. As we departed the audience, we prayed the Angelus together for God's mercy and strength as we work to heal the wounds. We look forward to actively continuing our discernment together identifying the most effective next steps."
The meeting followed an announcement on Wednesday that the pope would be calling all of the leaders of the bishops’ conferences around the world to Rome in February to discuss systemic clerical sex abuse. A Vatican spokesperson told The Daily Beast that the reason the meeting would be held in February and not sooner, given the urgency of the matter, was purely logistical. But the bishops will all be gathered in Rome before that when they attend the Synod of Bishops called “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” next month. Many have called for the pope to change the mission of that meeting into one focused on the clergy.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput had suggested that the pope call off the synod, which he said didn’t seem appropriate considering the widespread allegations of sex abuse. “Right now, the bishops would have absolutely no credibility in addressing this topic,” he said in a letter in late August according to several Catholic publications.
The lack of credibility grows deeper with every new scandal. On Thursday, Francis accepted the resignation of West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield who last week reached the age of 75 when all bishops must resign. The West Virginia bishop originally was scheduled to meet the pope in person.
Then it became clear why Bransfield didn’t show up. Just as the pope accepted his resignation, the Vatican press office announced it would be conducting an investigation into him for allegations of sexual harassment of adults. (Adding somewhat to the confusion, Monsignor Brian Bransfield, who is not accused of abuse, was in attendance at the papal meeting Thursday in his position as the secretary general of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)
The pope does not always accept these resignations, as in the case of American Cardinal Donald Wuerl who offered his own resignation nearly three years ago when he turned 75. Wuerl’s name likely came up in the Thursday meeting with American church leaders. His name was mentioned multiple times in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, and there has been a steady drumbeat calling for his resignation ever since.
Wuerl was in Rome last week to meet with Francis, who he says told him to return to Washington to ask his priests whether they thought he should stay or go as the leader of the important Washington, D.C. diocese. They told him to go, and Wuerl announced on Wednesday that he would soon be returning to Rome to ask Francis to accept his resignation. There was speculation that he might have been in attendance at the Thursday meeting after reports that he was seen in Rome Wednesday night, but he was not in the photo of those in attendance nor did Di Nardo mention him in his statement.
On Wednesday, an investigation into historical sexual abuse against Bishop Joseph Hart of Cheyenne, Wyoming, was launched. Hart was active in the diocese since 1976 and was once the highest ranking cleric in the state.
Statewide investigations are also underway in more than a dozen states, including New York and Missouri where allegations of widespread abuse have been reported for many years.
For years, the Vatican has remained passive on clerical sex abuse, leaving it to each country’s bishops’ conference to handle their own matters privately. But the exposure of the rampant abuse is clearly spreading. On Wednesday, the Catholic Church in Germany released its own study commissioned by its Bishops Conference that found 3,677 cases of sex abuse carried out by 1,670 priests from 1946 to 2014. Similar studies are also underway in France and in Italy, where whispers about abuse have been growing louder for years.
The Vatican has hinted that Francis will be meeting with other bishops’ conference leaders ahead of the February meeting in order to help set the agenda, but at the rate the abuse allegations are surfacing across the global church, there might not be many church leaders left by then who are untouched by the scandals.