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U.S. Catholic Bishops Should Convey a Note of Fraternal Caution to Rome

(George Weigel, National Review – January 4, 2019) This past September, Pope Francis, meeting with the leadership of the U.S. bishops conference, quickly rejected their proposals for addressing the current crisis of clerical sexual abuse. He proposed that the bishops instead hold a week-long spiritual retreat to consider their situation, and said that he would send the preacher to the papal household, the Italian Capuchin friar Raniero Cantalamessa, as retreat master. The bishops dutifully agreed to the retreat, which began on the night of January 2 at Mundelein Seminary, north of Chicago, and will last until January 8. The retreat is intended to provide an opportunity for the bishops to reflect on their vocation and responsibilities; it’s not a business meeting, and media reports suggesting that it’s an occasion to “solve” the clerical-abuse problem, and the related problem of episcopal misgovernance, are mistaken. The bishops are at Mundelein to pray, do penance, and reflect.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be discussions in between Father Cantalamessa’s spiritual conferences. And those discussions might well focus on another of the pope’s responses to the abuse crisis in the U.S.: a response that could have serious implications for the Vatican itself.

In November, the Holy See intervened to prevent the bishops of the United States from voting on several crisis-related proposals at their annual meeting. One would have created a comprehensive code of conduct for bishops, similar to what the bishops adopted for priests in 2002. Another would have established a national commission, composed of knowledgeable lay Catholics, who would receive allegations of misbehavior or malfeasant administration by bishops, assess those allegations against a carefully crafted set of criteria, and report substantiated serious allegations to the proper Church authorities. Neither proposal was voted on in November because the Vatican asked the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, to defer any action until after a world meeting of bishops in Rome next month, called by Pope Francis to address the abuse crisis in a global context.

That Vatican intervention struck many as inappropriate and unnecessary. It was also, one suspects, music to the ears of Jeffrey Anderson and other members of the plaintiffs’ bar who have already made hundreds of millions of dollars on abuse-related settlements and are looking for more.

For years, Anderson and other tort lawyers have been claiming that the Catholic Church is essentially a global corporation, run from a Roman headquarters by an omnicompetent and autocratic CEO, the pope. Therefore, the argument goes, when Diocese X in New York or Pennsylvania or Honduras or Chile or Germany or wherever fails to deal appropriately with a clerical sexual abuser, the entire Catholic Church should be legally — and financially — liable. So in the minds of more than a few members of the tort lawyers’ guild, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of clerical sexual abuse is the (presumed) vast wealth of the Vatican.

That itself is a misconception. The Holy See is not without resources. But it is orders of magnitude less wealthy than Apple, Google, Amazon, or Microsoft. Moreover, much of its “wealth,” in the form of an artistic patrimony that the Vatican curates for all of humanity, is illiquid. In the tort lawyers’ strategic vision, can Michelangelo’s Pietà be sought as compensation for a victim of clerical sexual abuse? Can the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel? How about the Apollo of the Belvedere in the Vatican Museums?