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By Phil Lawler, Catholic Culture, Nov 27, 2018
If you held out any hope that the Vatican might finally respond effectively to the sex-abuse scandal—that the February meeting could possibly prompt some real action—those hopes should have been shattered by the stunning announcement that Pope Francis had appointed Cardinal Blase Cupich to the organizing committee for that February event.
This is the same Cardinal Cupich who said, regarding the latest eruption of the scandal, that the Pope was “not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.” If you want to start a serious discussion of the abuse question among the world’s top Catholic prelates, you need to get past the gatekeeper. And at least one gatekeeper for this February meeting thinks that if you go through that gate, you’ll be headed down a rabbit hole. Good luck.
You’d like to think that in February, the presidents of the world’s episcopal conference will recognize that they are dealing with a scandal of immense proportions, a scandal that threatens the evangelical mission of the Church. But again, Cardinal Cupich told a TV interviewer that the issue shouldn’t be overemphasized. “The Pope has a bigger agenda,” he said, and as a first example of those “bigger” issues he mentioned “talking about the environment.”
Ordinarily, if you’re planning a conference, you’d choose organizers who take a special interest in the subject at hand. Cardinal Cupich has made it abundantly clear that he does not regard the sex-abuse scandal as a matter of paramount importance. Yet the Pope chose him to help organize this conference. Why?
To answer that question, let’s look at the second reason why the selection of Cardinal Cupich is astonishing.
The scandal that erupted this summer, and prompted the Pontiff to schedule this meeting for February, involved three issues: sexual abuse by clerics (as illustrated by the Pennsylvania grand-jury report), the unmasking and forced resignation of former cardinal McCarrick, and the testimony of Archbishop Vigano that Vatican officials, including Pope Francis himself, were previously aware of McCarrick’s perfidy. Only one of those issues—sexual abuse by priests—is on the agenda for the February meeting.
The subject for the meeting is “the protection of minors.” Period. There is no mention—at least not in the Vatican’s announcement of the event—of homosexual activity among the clergy, of homosexual influence in the hierarchy, of how McCarrick rose to ecclesial power, or of the Vigano testimony.
Some bishops would like to see the scope of the Vatican inquiry expanded to include those other topics. To be specific, more than 80 American bishops have called for a formal Vatican inquiry that might clear up the questions raised by the Vigano testimony. Cardinal Cupich is not one of those prelates. On the contrary, he has dismissed the Vigano testimony. So it’s fair to assume that as an organizer of the February conference, he will work assiduously to keep a tight focus on “the protection of minors.” And that, I suggest, is the reason why he was appointed to the organizing committee.
But I’m not finished yet. In his eye-opening testimony, Archbishop Vigano said that Cardinal Cupich is one of the American prelates whose rise through the ranks can be traced to the influence of the disgraced McCarrick. True, that charge is unproven, but neither is it disproven. Any serious Vatican inquiry would be forced to weigh the truth of Vigano’s claim. But now the cardinal who should be under a microscope is instead sitting on the organizing committee—in an ideal position to block uncomfortable questions about his own possible involvement to the scandal.
If the February conference is intended as an exercise in damage control, the Cupich appointment makes sense. If the conference is intended to prompt reform, the appointment makes no sense at all. So I conclude that this meeting—which one scarred veteran of the Vatican battles has described as the “last change” for Vatican credibility—will produce nothing more than “enthusiastic words” about the fight against sexual abuse.
At this point, why should we expect more? For most of five years, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has been working in these same vineyards, with little to show for it. The Commission strongly recommended a special tribunal to hold bishops accountable; that proposal was formally approved, then quietly shelved. Commission members have complained that their work is opposed by other offices within the Roman Curia, and ignored by many of the world’s episcopal conferences. Pope Francis could have given this existing Commission the clout that it needs to produce real reform. He could have summoned the leaders of the world’s episcopal conferences, and instructed them to carry out the suggestions of the Pontifical Commission.
Or, as just a small step in that direction, the Pope could have named Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the chairman of that Commission, to the organizing committee for the February meeting. He did not. While Cardinal O’Malley insists that he still has the Pope’s full confidence, and he will take part in the February meeting by virtue of his position on the Commission, it is still noteworthy that he is not on the organizing committee.
Think about it: The February conference is dedicated to the protection of minors. The Vatican already has an office devoted to precisely that topic. But that office will not be in charge of organizing the meeting. The Commission that has already spent months speaking with victims, and devising plans to protect them, is not setting the agenda.
Since the pressure for Vatican action this year has come primarily from the United States, it is fitting that at least one prominent American prelate should have been involved in the planning. If not Cardinal O’Malley, why not Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the US bishops’ conference?
Once again an explanation is close at hand, and it is not encouraging. Cardinal DiNardo led an American delegation to Rome this summer, to urge the Pope to conduct an inquiry into the McCarrick scandal and the Vigano charges. The Pope declined. If Cardinal DiNardo were placed on the organizing committee, he might be tempted to look for another way to jump-start that broader investigation. Whereas Cardinal Cupich, when asked about the McCarrick/Vigano mess, replied that“this is not on the Pope’s plate to fix. This is on us.”
Cardinal Cupich knows the Pope’s thinking. And Pope Francis knows full well what Cardinal Cupich will contribute to the task of organizing the February meeting. The sex-abuse scandal as seen through American eyes—the scandal that includes McCarrick and homosexual influence and Vatican complicity—is “not on the Pope’s plate to fix.” Look for more headlines on this issue in February, but do not expect any substantial movement. Help is not on the way.
Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.