Can the Catholic Church find a better way to choose bishops?

Chicago auxiliary bishop John R. Manz, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago and Chicago auxiliary bishop Joseph N. Perry kneel in prayer before three bishops-designate on Nov. 13, 2020, at Holy Name Cathedral. The three auxiliary bishops are Kevin M. Birmingham, Jeffrey S. Grob and Robert J. Lombardo. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)

More than a report about culpability for sexual abuses spanning decades, the Vatican’s report on Theodore McCarrick is an indictment of institutional knowledge and decision-making in the Catholic Church. The report, issued on Nov. 10 by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, not only charts who knew what and when about the disgraced former cardinal. It also gives us keen insight into the people, decisions and processes that enabled his rise to posts of authority in the church, despite knowledge of his crimes of the abuse of power and sexual abuse—from bishop, to archbishop and then cardinal.

Is there a better way to select bishops? Can the process of vetting candidates for episcopal promotion in the Catholic Church be more transparent?

The McCarrick timeline

Whistleblowers sounded their concerns before Mr. McCarrick’s ascendancy to the rank of archbishop—and again to the cardinalate. We now know that allegations of sexual misconduct were repeatedly overlooked or explained away by those who had the power to ensure protection and justice for his victims and to stop his rise through the ranks. A detailed timeline of the rise and fall of Mr. McCarrick can be found here.

Among the many troubling elements of the McCarrick Report is the admission that correspondence did exist that should have raised serious red flags. For example, in 1999, the now-deceased Cardinal John O’Connor, then archbishop of New York, sent a letter to Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the apostolic nuncio to the United States at the time. The letter contained named and anonymous complaints of sexual abuse of minors and adults and abuses of power by Mr. McCarrick. Cardinal O’Connor informed the nuncio that he had learned of these abuses from “unimpeachable and highly knowledgeable authorities.”

The allegations in the letter stated that then-Archbishop McCarrick had “sexual conduct with another priest in June 1987” and “was known to have shared a bed with young adult men in the Bishop’s residence in Metuchen and Newark,” and with “adult seminarians at a beach house on the New Jersey shore.” Cardinal O’Connor also wrote of “a series of anonymous letters” in 1992 and 1993 that “accused McCarrick of pedophilia.”

Among the many troubling elements of the McCarrick Report is the admission that correspondence did exist that should have raised serious red flags.

Following Cardinal O’Connor’s letter and Mr. McCarrick’s initial rejection for promotion to Washington, several bishops from the United States sent letters to the Vatican attesting to then-Archbishop McCarrick’s excellent character and vouching for his suitability for promotion. Mr. McCarrick himself also wrote a letter to the pope’s secretary and made a personal visit to the pope at the Vatican. Following the visit, Pope John Paul II personally revisited Mr. McCarrick’s promotion—bypassing the usual processes followed by the Vatican for the selection of bishops—and approved him as the next archbishop of Washington on Thanksgiving Day 2000.

Mr. McCarrick’s rise shows the inner workings of the church’s bureaucracy when it comes to appointing bishops and the failures that sometimes result.

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“This investigation, which notably reveals that three American bishops did not say everything they knew about McCarrick’s actions, has the merit of asking very concrete questions,” said Hans Zollner, S.J., president of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and an inaugural member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, when interviewed by LaCroix International about the impact of the report the week after it was released. “Who is involved in the choice of future bishops? Who decides? How? What questions should be put to him and his entourage? How can we ensure the highest degree of sincerity and transparency within this process itself?”

Mr. McCarrick’s rise shows the inner workings of the church’s bureaucracy when it comes to appointing bishops and the failures that sometimes result.

How is a bishop appointed?

The qualities that make any bishop candidate to be considered worthy of the office are outlined in Catholic Church canon law. Among them, the church asks that the candidate be “outstanding in solid faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence, and human virtues, and endowed with other qualities which make him suitable to fulfill the office in question” and that he be “of good reputation” and “in possession of a doctorate.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also outlines the process for appointing a bishop on its website. The process begins when the local bishop recommends to his metropolitan archbishop priests from his diocese whom he thinks would make good bishops. The candidates are then discussed by all the bishops of the metropolitan area, or province, and then voted on. The selected names are then forwarded to the apostolic nuncio in Washington, who gathers information before he decides on three worthy candidates and forwards their names to the Vatican in a report known as a terna. Church law also recommends that “if he judges it expedient,” the nuncio “is also to seek individually and in secret the opinion of others from both the secular and non-secular clergy and from laity outstanding in wisdom.”

Once the nuncio has decided on his terna, a full report of his investigation into the three bishop-candidates, along with his opinions of each and recommendation of the most worthy candidate, is sent to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. A cardinal-relator is appointed to further digest and summarize the nuncio’s terna. He then presents his preferred candidate at a meeting of the congregation where members vote.

When the congregation finally agrees on a clear bishop-candidate, the head of the congregation presents the name to the pope. But the pope is not obliged to choose any of the three candidates identified through the lengthy selection process—usually six to eight months and often more, according to the U.S. bishops. He is free to accept or reject the recommendations and to call for a restart to the process, or appoint a priest of his choosing from anywhere in the world.

Alternative processes

The process for appointing bishops has not always been this way. In the early church, laypeople and clergy elected their bishops, and it was not until 1917 that a major revision of canon law gave the pope much greater authority over the appointment of bishops.

The Rev. James A. Coriden, a canon lawyer and dean emeritus of the Washington Theological Union, has long written about reforming the process for selecting bishops. When asked about the inclusion of laypeople in the nuncio’s consultation process, he wrote in an email to America, “I don’t believe that many laity are in fact consulted in normal circumstances.” He added that “any process that breaks up the clerical monopoly would be an improvement.”

In an interview with America, Susan K. Wood, S.C.L., academic dean and professor at Regis College in Toronto, Canada, noted that while “the process for selecting bishops has changed dramatically in history,” it has always been “a balancing act of a number of interests that need to be protected.”

“When the church centralizes authority and power, sometimes today we’re tempted to think that that’s a bad thing,” she said, pointing to examples in history where the pope’s power was necessary and used for the great good of the church.

Susan K. Wood, S.C.L.: “I think what has hurt the church in the sexual abuse crisis—and this is nothing new—is a lack of transparency."

During the lay investiture controversy in the Middle Ages, when kings and emperors wanted the power to name their local bishops, the pope intervened to locate the power of naming bishops with the papacy. A similar controversy arose at the time of the French Revolution, where in many places bishops were appointed by kings and the pope was simply asked for his stamp of approval.

But, Sister Wood said, “we’re seeing more and more that maybe it’s time for another adjustment to this process.” In her view, several problems arise when centralizing the selection of bishops to bishops alone.

To her mind, trusting in good faith that a bishop would present his best man to the nuncio is “presuming the generosity of the bishop to even bring in a candidate forward.” What if, she asked, “a bishop doesn’t want to lose his best priest [and] isn’t going to put them on the list?” Similarly, a bishop could exclude good and holy candidates with whose views he disagrees.

Another realm where bishops’ biases could come into play is at bishops’ conferences. “I would like to see conferences playing a larger role in this,” she said. “In the United States, we’d have to honestly say that frequently bishops seem to be associated with a particular political party. And you don’t want that kind of politicization to flow into the selection of bishops.”

Not wanting to lay all blame at the feet of the bishops, Sister Wood said that “the laity are as politicized as any bishop.” The church should not “rush in and say the laity are the solution because we can also be the problem,” she said. “I think the danger in the church is always when ‘like speaks to like,’ when it becomes an insular culture that doesn’t let in other voices and can’t listen to them and keeps its own secrets,” with the result that “you have the same people talking to the same people, preserving certain values which preserve certain privileges.”

“I think what has hurt the church in the sexual abuse crisis—and this is nothing new—is a lack of transparency,” she added.

The process of appointing bishops should be thought of like a “three-legged stool” involving the laity, bishop and the pope, said Sister Wood, before suggesting that the Roman Catholic Church look to other churches to study how the process might be revised.

In the Eastern Catholic Churches, for example, Sister Wood said that “they create a list of candidates, they send that list to Rome and the pope then has the right to take names off that list. And then the list goes back. And the selection is actually done by the bishop.”

In the United States, Voice of the Faithful, a group of lay Catholics founded in 2002 to respond to survivors and ensure a greater voice for laypeople following the revelations of child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston, has long called for reforms to the process for selecting bishops. The group drafted a document calling for the pope “to restore a role for the laity in the selection of their bishops by expanding the recommendation processes at diocesan and archdiocesan levels to require formal consultation with groups of committed Catholic men and women.”

Mary Pat Fox, the group’s president, believes that the church can adopt best practices from the modern corporate world. “I think there would be background checks and things like that, that would happen that would put the laity at ease as to who was leading the church in their diocese,” she told America. Part of a real-world screening process should also test bishop-candidates’ handling of money. “Are they being transparent on their financials?” Ms. Fox asked, speaking to a need to review bishop-candidates’ records with money. “Because, quite honestly,” she added, referring to the undisclosed payouts by dioceses to victim-survivors in the past, “how they could pay off all of these people was by not being transparent.”

“You kind of have to go after this in a variety of different ways,” she added, “because we’re not the ones in power and so you have to say: ‘Okay, so what would be an indication that there would be a problem?’ This is an indication that there’s a problem: If you’re not willing to publish your financials.”

In an interview with America for the “Deliver Us” podcast on the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, Richard Gaillardetz, a professor and the chair of the department of theology at Boston College, said that “there ought to be ways in which we have oversight boards, comprised of laypeople and perhaps clergy as well, that would at the minimum have the right to flag what they think may be episcopal misconduct and bring it to the attention of the Vatican.” Reminding listeners that “Pope Francis said that we need to make sure the consultation doesn’t just mean consulting people likely to agree with me,” Mr. Gaillardetz quoted Celestine I, a fifth-century pope, who said, “Let a bishop not be imposed upon the people whom they do not want.”

For Mr. Gaillardetz, “what’s clear there was how important it was that the bishop was related to the local church.” The problem today is “thinking of vocation in very privatized terms,” he said. “We tend not to emphasize the discernment of the community in whether there’s a vocation to serve the church.”

In 2004, the U.S.C.C..B’s National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, in its report reviewing the church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis, recommended that the process for selecting bishops, “needs greater lay involvement, both in putting forth the names of priests who might be considered for the episcopacy and in vetting those who have been put forward, to ensure that a wide net is cast when selecting bishops.”

Bishop Mark E. Brennan of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston agreed that the vetting of bishop-candidates needs to follow a secret process, “to avoid, partly, jockeying by clerics for advancement."

In the report, the board lamented that “the laity largely have been excluded from matters of Church governance in the United States,” and “greater involvement of the laity in Church governance might well have lessened both the extent of the current crisis and the magnitude of the laity’s negative response to it.”

There are indications that some bishops would welcome modifications to the process of appointing bishops, like those suggested by the experts America consulted here. Discussing the McCarrick report at the General Assembly of the U.S. Bishops’ conference, less than a week after it was released, Bishop Mark E. Brennan of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston agreed that the vetting of bishop-candidates needs to follow a secret process, “to avoid, partly, jockeying by clerics for advancement,” he said. But, he added, “it would be helpful—to avoid future problems—that name be made known, that name be published and give a timeframe of 30-60 days for people to comment. There might well surface things at that time,” the bishop added. “Any serious accusations could be investigated and we might avoid promoting someone to the episcopacy who really is not deserving.”

Bishop Brennan drew on a witness account in the McCarrick report to illustrate the benefit of modifying the screening process for bishop-candidates. The report reveals that when Mr. McCarrick was bishop of Metuchen, a woman identified as “Mother 1” “wrote and mailed anonymous letters to members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy expressing her distress about McCarrick’s conduct with minors.”

Investigations into Mr. McCarrick never surfaced any of Mother 1’s alleged letters, and she did not keep copies. By her admission, her letters did not identify her gender, that she was a mother, the details of victims and whether others suspected Mr. McCarrick’s inappropriate conduct with minors. The report documents that “she was ‘trying to explain that McCarrick had an attraction to boys.’ Referring to the time she saw Mr. McCarrick ‘rubbing the inside of [her sons’] thighs,’” and “that she had personally witnessed McCarrick ‘inappropriately touching’ boys.”

It is impossible to speculate—given the lack of identifying details in the letters, questions surrounding the reliability of anonymous complainants and the required burden of proof— whether an investigation into Mother 1’s allegations would have stopped Mr. McCarrick’s abuse or even his rise through the ranks. But if anonymous complaints had been recorded in the bishop’s personnel file, such documentation might have led to a more thorough canvassing of opinions and raised questions when considering Mr. McCarrick for more prominent dioceses.

Had there been a more participatory process in place, akin to the one suggested by Bishop Brennan and others, these allegations, the allegations made by seminarians of Mr. McCarrick’s criminal conduct at his beach house and the other accusations detailed in the 449-page report would not have been in vain.

Mother 1 “did see things regarding her own sons,” Bishop Brennan said. “If that had been brought forward—if she’d had the time or the opportunity to do that—perhaps we would not have had a Bishop McCarrick and would not have had these huge, huge problems.”

Correction (Nov. 25): An earlier version of this article referred to the "three-legged stool" of participants in the selection of bishops, to which Sister Wood referred in an interview, as consisting of "the laity, priests and bishops." It has been corrected to "the laity, bishops and the pope."

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