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Top U.S. bishops meet with Pope Francis to discuss reform in wake of latest abuse crisis

Top American bishops met in the Vatican with Pope Francis on
Thursday to discuss the sexual-abuse crisis that the leader of
the U.S. church said has “lacerated” the church.

That leader, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston,
president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was
himself accused this week of covering up the actions of an
abusive priest in his archdiocese – prompting questions about
DiNardo’s fitness to lead the reforms.

“It’s too early to say, but just looking at the case, it looks
very bad. It seems like a violation – is he the guy who should
be leading at this point?” David Gibson, the director of the
Center on Religion and Culture at the Catholic university
Fordham said about DiNardo. “What he’s got to be seen to be
doing is pushing for a very rigorous policy. Can he do that if
he himself has not been as diligent, to say the least, as he
should be?”

The moral authority of bishops across the United States has
come under new scrutiny, after one cardinal resigned this
summer and another publicly stated he might do so, and another
bishop was removed from ministry by Pope Francis on Thursday.
That bishop, Michael J. Bransfield of West Virginia, will face
a church investigation on charges of sexual harassment.

Amid the crisis facing the church’s leaders, the bishops who
met with Francis on Thursday said very little about what
exactly they discussed in terms of plans for reform.

“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,” DiNardo said in
a statement after leaving the meeting, which also included
Archbishop Seán Patrick O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop José
H. Gomez of Los Angeles. “. . . 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.”

On Wednesday, as DiNardo prepared for his meeting with the
pope, the Associated Press reported that a woman claims to have
told DiNardo about an abusive priest in his Texas archdiocese,
and that DiNardo failed to take action to remove the priest
from ministry until the priest was arrested on child abuse
charges this week.

The accusation only fueled the calls for increased lay
leadership and for the resignation of bishops nationwide that
have echoed through the Catholic church since a Pennsylvania
grand jury completed a massive report last month, detailing
allegations of abuse by more than 300 priests in the state.
States including Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico and
New York have now launched their own investigations.

Gibson called for a board of lay leaders, not clergy, empowered
to investigate whether bishops are properly handling all
allegations of abuse. “The pope seems to feel that he can do it
on his own here and there. But I don’t think that’s a credible
way to go forward,” he said.

However, some in the church believe internal investigations are
still the proper way to handle the crisis.

Teresa Kettlekamp, who headed the office of youth protection
for the American bishops, and now sits on a similar commission
for Pope Francis, said she believes Francis is pursuing an
appropriate course of action of having bishops clean house in
their own dioceses. “A lot of good people are working for the
good of the cause. And hopefully investigation results will be
shared fully with the public and if action is needed it will be
taken as fast as humanly possible, with no foot dragging,” she
said. “The truth always comes to light.”

Asked if DiNardo could continue to lead the U.S. church on this
issue despite being accused of covering for a priest himself,
she said she would wait “until I know all the facts.”

DiNardo is accused of mishandling the case of the Rev. Manuel
La Rosa-Lopez, who was arrested in Conroe, Texas, on Tuesday on
four counts of indecency with a child. Police say La Rosa-Lopez
fondled two teenagers when he was a priest at a Conroe church.
At the time of his arrest, he was a priest at another church in
Richmond, Texas, the police report said.

The pope seems to feel that he can do it on his own here and
there. But I don’t think that’s a credible way to go forward

The AP said both victims, who were teenagers at the time, are
now in their 30s. One victim told police that her family
reported La Rosa-Lopez’s conduct to the church after he touched
her when she was a teenager, and that the priest was
transferred to another parish as a result. In 2010, the victim
said that she saw that La Rosa-Lopez was still in ministry and
met with DiNardo, who had not been in Texas when she first
raised the allegation.

The victim told police that DiNardo told her the priest
wouldn’t work with children. But eight years later, La
Rosa-Lopez was still in a parish church. “I’m tired of all of
his empty words,” the victim said of DiNardo, to the AP. “If
he’s going to go meet with the pope and pretend that all of
this is okay and his diocese is clean, I can’t stand it.”

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston responded in a statement
that church officials considered the woman’s allegations when
she first reported the priest in 2001, and that an archdiocesan
review board decided to allow La Rosa-Lopez to return to parish
ministry in 2004 based on the evidence presented to the board.

The only other complaint about La Rosa-Lopez was in 2018, the
archdiocese said. That victim reported his abuse to the church
about a year ago, according to police, but did not meet with
DiNardo until last month. When he did, the church contacted
Child Protective Services, and La Rosa-Lopez was arrested this
week.

Teresa Pitt-Green, who co-founded the magazine The Healing
Voices for sexual abuse survivors trying to maintain their
Catholic faith, said she is “heartbroken” about the DiNardo
allegations. She has worked with him and found him supportive
of clergy abuse survivors. “I’m finding myself feeling confused
if it’s true, but I’m not judging anything,” she said.

As far as whether the allegation affects DiNardo’s ability to
lead the charge against abuse, Pitt-Green said, “I certainly
think it challenges it. And it makes people question.”

That feeling of not knowing who to trust, she said, is
especially familiar and hard for survivors who have been
violated in a context that’s supposed to be holy and safe. “As
a survivor, I’m very leery of what people try to present as
real. And even more so now.”

On the same morning that DiNardo, facing this accusation, met
with Pope Francis, the Vatican announced that Francis would
accept the resignation of Bransfield, the 75-year-old leader of
the Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, diocese. Francis
ordered the archbishop of Baltimore to investigate charges that
Bransfield sexually harassed adults, the Baltimore archdiocese
said in a statement; Bransfield previously has been accused of
molesting teenagers and denied the accusations, according to
church officials and court documents.

Bransfield is only the latest U.S. Catholic leader removed from
his position due to sexual harassment and coverup charges. This
summer, Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington from 2001
until his retirement at age 75 in 2006, became the first U.S.
cardinal to ever resign from the College of Cardinals due to
allegations of sexual abuse. He has been accused of sexually
harassing two minors as well as young adult seminarians and
priests.

Pope
Francis during a meeting with U.S. bishops and cardinals at the
Vatican on Sept. 13, 2018.
Vatican Media/AFP/Getty
Images

And after the Pennsylvania grand-jury report last month,
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington has faced local and
national clamor to resign. The report describes Wuerl’s
response to allegations of abuse during his 18 years as bishop
of Pittsburgh; he sometimes went to great lengths to remove
accused priests from churches, and other times took
psychiatrists’ advice that the priests were safe and let them
continue in ministry.

On Tuesday, Wuerl told the priests in the Washington
archdiocese that he will travel to the Vatican soon to discuss
his potential resignation with Francis. He did not say whether
he would ask to be relieved of his duties by the pope, but he
did say he has heard the cries for a “new beginning.”

In a story published Wednesday, the archdiocesan newspaper
appeared to clarify Wuerl’s plans. “The cardinal said he has
concluded that the best way to serve the Church as it moves
into the future is two-fold: to participate in a process of
healing for all those who have suffered abuse, and to meet soon
with Pope Francis to request that the Holy Father accept the
resignation that was submitted three years ago when the
cardinal turned 75,” the story said.

In a new blog post on Thursday, Wuerl seemed to own up to
sometimes erring during his time in Pittsburgh. “The processes
were not flawless, and I must acknowledge the profound
heartache, anger and distrust that have been expressed in the
wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. For my shortcomings
of the past and of the present I take full responsibility and
wish that I could wipe away all the pain, confusion and
disillusionment that people feel, and I wish that I could redo
some decisions I have made in my three decades as a bishop and
each time get it right,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, for survivors, the airing of so many wrongs is both
painful and vindicating. Pitt-Green said that the bishops are
suffering a “self-inflicted wound.”

“The pressure they feel from Catholics is nothing compared to
the pressure from God to clean this up. There’s no two ways
about this,” she said.

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