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Who will be our next USCCB president?

A Chicago paper reported over the weekend that VOTF has written a letter to all U.S. bishops asking them to prevent Cardinal Francis George from becoming USCCB president.

Cardinal George is now vice-president of USCCB, and thus poised to assume the presidency.

The Daily Southtown reported that the letter to the bishops said, "We respectfully request that you ask Cardinal George to step aside so that a bishop with a track record of protecting children may be elected."

VOTF has not, as of this writing, posted the full text of its letter to the bishops on its Web site. Neither has the Archdiocese of Chicago, though the paper did note that an archdiocesan spokesperson said that there were errors in VOTF's letter to the bishops.

This is not the first time VOTF has criticized Cardinal George and called for him to step down, at least temporarily, from a governing position in the USCCB. VOTF issued statements in February and March, 2006, over what it saw as Cardinal George's failure to promptly remove Fr. Daniel McCormack from a Chicago school. Grant Gallicho covered that story on our blog in March.

McCormack plead guilty to molesting boys at the school where he taught this summer.

Linkable, complete information about this latest VOTF-Cardinal George showdown seems sketchy.

Is it possible to say something more than "talk is cheap" against the way Cardinal George dealt with reports about McCormack (Cardinal George later apologized for the way he handled the situation)?

Is it possible to do more than accuse VOTF of using abuse as a handy straw man to oust conservative bishops (VOTF calls its position "centrist")?

I'm sure it is possible. Perhaps those more in the know can enlighten us.



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The president of the USCCB ought to be, among other things, above suspicion, or so one might think. Rather like the proverbial requirement for Caesar's wife. Does anyone meet that requirement? I do not claim to know.What I am fairly sure of is that attempts to block Cardinal George's succession will not come to anything.. What is interesting about all this is what it says about the state of Episcopacy in the U.S.

I know that we're trying to avoid the same old dichotomies.May I propose a new one? (Sorry if this has been hashed out ad nauseum before.)The kids who call themselves "orthodox Catholics" and whom John Allen calls Evangelical Catholics think that "pastoral" is a very funny word: a code word for relativistic, antinomial, synchretic. They roll their eyes, as kids do.Meanwhile, "doctrine" continues to be labeled an irrelevant category by some. (Further eye rolling.)What little I know of Cardinal George suggests that he does take doctrine seriously. Which means he can't be pastoral, right? In addition to whatever else may be of signicance, I think that is one (false, in my view) dichotomy that could possibly be at work here, and is poised to come into play in a lot of issues for the foreseeable future.

Btw, I'm not suggesting that there is a deliberate smokescreen, but that there may be this unaddressed subtext.

These guys have gone too far. Cardinal George is one of the leading lights of the US church. It simply is not possible to tag him with conventional political labels. This is a man who has called America a Calvinist society, and you know who he is talking about here. And besides, how can we not love someone who can say the following?:"One could say, as I have, that the Democratic Party has lost its soul. . . One could also argue that the Republican Party never had a soul"

One wonders whether VOTF isn't shooting itself in the foot with this call for George to step aside. It's not as if the USCCB takes this group seriously. On the contrary, a protest by VOTF may only enhance George's cachet among many of his colleagues.

Is Cardinal George a "conservative bishop?" I tend to think of people like Chaput or Mayer or Law (one of whom I respect) when that term is used.I will say that he has been a big disappointment to me -- he was supposed to be the intellectual light of the modern American church (and, yes, there are "conservative" intellectuals that are worth listening to and sometimes downright inspiring), but his pronouncements on modern American society, the church in the world, and the history of the last four centuries have been quaintly third rate, and he's gone and topped it off by mishandling another pederast when that horse had left the barn.Was he in over his head, or is the position just too stressful? It's certainly possible to think of "liberal" bishops of the recent past who have let the side down once they got into the big spotlight.

Gene, I used as many weasel words in my post as possible because I do NOT pretend to know all the nuances of what's happening, nor do I want to pigeonhole Cardinal George as conservative, pastoral, or doctrinal. (Kathy has an interesting linguistic observation there about subtexts, though I'm not sure how it relates specifically to this wrangle. As a convert, I am woefully stupid sometimes about the "code" that cradle Catholics absorb from a young age.)Plus, I'm not a member of VOTF, nor, from my vantage in Cow Country, do I have my finger on the pulse of what happens in Cook County Church politics. (For which I say a prayer of thanks every morning when I eat my raisn bran.)So I'm trying to raise the issue in a way that will evoke considered responses on both sides, and I intend to mostly sit back listen, this post notwithstanding.I will say that I find it odd that VOTF has been criticizing Cardinal George for some time, and is serious enough in its criticism to try to persuade bishops not to let him take on the presidency of the USCCB. Yet VOTF has not posted the full text of its letter (or made any reference to it that I can find).So if any VOTF members out therehave the text of the letter or can enlighten us about its efforts--or give us a link to the official version--that'd be great.I will try to alert VOTF and the Archdiocese of Chicago later today about our discussion in hopes they will weigh in.

So much to say about this case. First, I recommend reading the audits commissioned and released by Cardinal George. Unfortunately, they have become extraordinarily difficult to find on the Archdiocese of Chicago's Web site. After some hunting, I found one of them (all these links are to PDF files): couldn't find the other audit on the archdiocese's Web site. Fortunately it's being hosted on a local TV news affiliate's site:, I came across something labeled "Confidential Memo" in Google's search results. It appears to be an document summarizing the review board's recommendations and responses to the McCormack fandango. See what you think: if you'd rather read a good summary of the audits, the Chicago Tribune's initial story is archived here: read that article (at least) before commenting further on the situation here. I'm perplexed by VOTF's reasoning (I assume this is the local affiliate). The Southtown story doesn't clarify much: is the group asking George to resign his position as VP of the USCCB, or simply recommending that the body of bishops not elect him as president? His performance in the McCormack case was frankly miserable. So were those of the religious and other laypeople who touched the case. It remains, for me, one of the most troubling stories in this whole mess. Kathy, among the many lessons of the abuse scandal is that the categories "liberal" and "conservative" are not predictive of how well a bishop handles abuser priests.

Both the outgoing president of the Conference and the Cardinal have hardly been without critism in handling the sex abuse matter - a matter that still weighs rather heavily, despite claims that it's "history."The VOTF group requested sometime back that the Conference look again at the matter of celibacy - I'm not sure that request was even graced with a reply.The problem as i see it, no matter who leads the Conference, is the issue of how much voice leadership is giving to the laity and to what extent it will deal with pastoral concerns rather than curial subservience,A current on-line letter exchange among some VOTF members deals with are there trustworthy clergy they can turn to with problems. Some are very negative, others mixed.My view is that their are a small number of Bishops who are truly pastoral, so it may not matter who lwads the Conference.

Grant,I'm not really talking about liberal and conservative, but about a perception on the part of some that doctrine is dispensable. May I recommend Fr. Komonchak's excellent 2003 Common Ground lecture for anyone interested in this particular digression. of digression.)

Kathy, I think it interesting that you mentioned the interpretations of the words 'pastoral' and 'doctrine.'In the FWIMBW Dept., I once rather liked the word 'pastoral' because it suggested to me a caring concern for those led.Then I saw a comment some while back from our fellow blogger Jimmy Mac who observed that most Catholics today likely do not want to be considered dumb sheep --- and for valid and understandable reasons. And Bingo! There went my liking for the word 'pastoral.'Anyway, I'm surprised that young Catholics today would, as you've noted, equate this 'pastoral' word with "relativistic" (never mind your other words: I'm a former govt. bureaucrat, and we never had occasion to use words such as 'antinomial' and 'synchretic' :)On the other hand, I'm not bothered by the word 'doctrine' but only by how this word is construed by some of my brethren. As in: everything out of Rome is "doctrinal" and must be obeyed/subscribed to/considered as infallible and "irreformable" ("orthodox" types love this word :) I suspect it's this warped understanding of "doctrine" that gives a lot of us progressives, moderates, and liberals heartburn.Bob, I was struck by your comment, inter alia, about "how much voice leadership is giving to the laity..." It immediately raised the question in my mind, "Why should we expect or even want episcopal leadership to "give" us voice?!?!?" You may agree or disagree here, but I think it's well past time for the laity to assert themselves and give voice to the bishops. And if the bishops don't listen, then it's time to act.

Kathy,What does this have to do with doctrine?

Grant:Maybe nothing. Or maybe George's double doctorate looks unattractive to some who cannot reconcile pastoral leadership with theological expertise.A minor point. I'd love to drop it for the present.

Nice try by Kathy to change the subject. But as she wrote to me on this blog, she will take up her transparency at another time. Votf's point is simple it seems to me. He messed up miserably, as Grant wrote on McCormick. A leader like that should not be the head of all the bishops. Where is the mystery?

The Trib story link Grant provided (summarizing the audit report) is quite good. Everyone please read it. nothing else, it outlines how a diocese (and perhaps many dioceses) fail to properly monitor, treat or remove sex offenders.This is not a pastoral, doctrinal or celibacy issue; it's an administrative issue.At the very least, the audit should encourage the laity to investiage our own dioceses methods for dealing with sex offenders and complaints about abuse. And, as Grant noted, a lot of info seems to have slipped through various diocesan officials, both religious and lay.Possibly, if it can be shown that Cardinal George was personally negligent by failing to properly handle not just one sex offender but in failing to implement appropriate procedures and safeguards, that threaten many in the diocese, then VOTF has a point.Whether we all agree with VOTF's aims or believe its claims to be a centrist organization are beside the point.

Re: VOTF, Cardinal George & the USCCB. We certainly agree that this is a very long shot. However, it seems to us > that this is so because far too many of our bishops have little regard for the > USCCB and dont think it makes much difference who is president. After all, for at least 20 years the Vatican has stripped such episcopal conferences of any real teeth.> > We differ. We believe the Conference has done some excellent staff work. It > put together the Charter, has tried to provide serious financial guidelines > and has offered other substantial support to dioceses. The problem is that > individual bishops are free to, and often do, ignore the USCCB.> > Nevertheless, there is a perception among the general public, whether Catholic > or not, that the Conference speaks for the Church in this country. For that > reason, it seems to us a tragic mistake to follow what is not a compulsory > tradition and elect to its presidency one with such a flawed record of > addressing the greatest scandal in the history of the American Church. This > step would lend substantial and justified credence to recent assertions from > within the Church that the sex abuse crisis has not yet been taken seriously > enough by the hierarchy.> > This is why we are willing to jeopardize what infinitesimal influence we have > with the bishops. The Cardinal could easily and understandably step aside for > reasons of his already precarious state of health. VOTF doesnt need, and > wouldnt get, the credit.> > Anne & Ed WilsonEd is a member of the VOTF National Representative Council.

George is head of the diocese. His charges clearly did not follow the guidlelines of the USCCB in the care and neglect of children. How is he not responsible? Why should he head an organization whose guidlines he clearly ignored. What am I missing?

Anne & Ed:Thanks for that explanation. I think I see what VOTF is trying to achieve here, and what is at stake, as far as public perception is concerned. Having not followed the McCormack case very closely until now (thanks, Grant), I can see, also, why George would be seen as a poor choice to head the Conference.But hey, Cardinal Law is now archpriest of St. Mary Major. "La bella figura" in full swing. I wonder if that same principle isn't at work at the USCCB. Is there anyone familiar enough with the Conference's inner workings who would care to comment?Your quest still seems quixotic, but that does not rob it of its nobility or rightness. Soldier on!

As much as we can criticize the USCCB, it still functions (albeit barely) as a buffer between the Vatican and our local churches.If my impression from perusing "orthodox" blogsites is any indication, these theocons would just as soon see the USCCB disappear so that Rome could exercise even greater control over the American Catholic Church.To anyone of a more moderate or progressive bent dissatisfied with the USCCB and contemplating its demise, I can only say, "Be careful what you ask for; it may just come true!"

Certainly Cardinal George's and the Chicago Archdiocese's record is not squeaky clean, and the McCormack case is egregious.Still, it's worth recalling that Cardinal George was instrumental in getting the Dallas Charter in place. The Charter is not perfect, but on the whole it has been a good and workable instrument for calling our bishops to responsibility. Of course, that good work by George doesn't erase the pain caused by abusers like McCormack (can anything?), but it may help to dispell any impression that George doesn't care about his people or the victims, or that he's more interested in high ecclesiastical office than in the welfare of his flock. For that matter - if being tarred by the abuse scandal disqualifies a bishop from national conference leadership, are there ANY ordinaries that would pass muster? Someone has to lead.Cardinal George is not perfect. Yet he seems to have the respect of Rome, his brother bishops, the bulk of the clergy and people of his diocese, and a good chunk of the media and the Catholic public commentariat. His track record in Chicago and with the USCCB, the McCormack case aside, is that he is an able and effective leader. His would be the highest national profile the Conference has had in the presidency in a number of years, and that may help the nation hear the voice of the conference, a voice that still speaks prophetically but to less effect than was the case 10 or 20 years ago.In the spirit of full disclosure: I'm one of his clergy (I'm a deacon in Chicago), so in that sense perhaps I can't be considered disinterested. And I guess I'm not: I like him, and believe it would be a good thing for the church in the US if he were to become president of the Conference.

Jim,I don't know many Catholics in Chicago--lay or ordained--who are terribly fond of the cardinal. Not all harbor animosity (many just don't know much about him), although I have to tell you that to a one all are outraged by his egregious failures in the McCormack case. Keep in mind that when the news initially broke, George told reporters that he couldn't remove McCormack immediately because canon law tied his hands. That is false. Also keep in mind that George's initial response to the Charter, including and especially so-called zero tolerance was not favorable. He came around. But one has to wonder how seriously he took the issue of sexual abuse after seeing how badly he botched McCormack. Nobody's perfect. But who's asking for perfection? It isn't expecting too much for a bishop to follow his own rules and the advice of his self-appointed abuse review board three years after Dallas, is it?

Hi, Grant, it might be fair to say that he's more respected than loved. He had a tough act to follow in Cardinal Bernardin, who really was beloved in Chicago. George got off to a rocky start, especially with some of the clergy, but by and large that has settled down. Priests with whom I've talked tell me that most of them have come around to respecting George. That may not equate to fondness, but how many of us truly are fond of our bosses?The McCormack case is just ugly. Many people failed the victims and the community, at many levels, in the archdiocese, the police department and the state's attorney's office. It proved, tragically, that an evil and persistent abuser could game the systems, both ecclesiastical and civil. Still, it may be instructive to compare the handling of the McCormack case to some of the notorious pre-Dallas Charter instances. Cardinal Law wrote the book on how a prelate used to handle abusers like McCormack: transfer the abuser, stonewall the press and the faithful, offer zero cooperation with civil authorites, and treat the victims as legal opponents rather than as human persons in need of healing and therapy. Note that none of this happened in the McCormack case. In fact, Cardinal George has stated repeatedly the he takes full responsibility for the failures of his administration, has cooperated with civil authorities to put McCormack in prison, has reached out to victims and the affected parishes and school, and has strengthened the processes that failed in the McCormack case. None of this justifies the horrible mistakes made in handling McCormack, but it does suggest that these cases are no longer treated as "business as usual". Taken in as an isolated instance, I understand how the McCormack case could lead one to conclude that George really doesn't take sexual abuse seriously. But speaking as one who lives in Chicago, who went through formation during the height (depth?) of the national scandal, and who serves the church in its aftermath, my experience has been that, despite McCormack, under George's leadership the archdiocese's implementation of the Dallas Charter has been vigorous and comprehensive. The National Review Board has found that Chicago is in compliance. In my view, McCormack is an anomaly, not a trend. At any rate, I believe that VOTF is making a serious mistake in taking the extraordinary step of actively campaigning against George's succession. If VOTF is sincere about being an effective advocate on behalf of the Church and sexual abuse victims, it should recognize that Cardinal George, despite the McCormack case, is not the enemy. In fact, he could be a tremendous ally. I fear that the inevitable outcome of VOTF's campaign will be that it will have succeeded only in marginalizing itself even more than it already has.

Just heard that a VOTF rep is meeting with the president of the Natl. Federation of Priests Council.This raised the following questions for me:-was there any response from USCCB to request about the Cardinal?-has there been any reponse to VOTF from USCCB about request for a celibacy study?-Has USCCB as a body ever dealt directly with VOTF (formally?)If the answer to the above is no, what does that say about leadership and relatiions with the laity -especially if you think (as many do) that VOTF is mainstream?

Jim, You are circumnavigating Grant's words. Nothing you wrote disproves: " It isn't expecting too much for a bishop to follow his own rules and the advice of his self-appointed abuse review board three years after Dallas, is it?" How clear can it get?Your remarks about VOTF is equally off the mark. VOTF is a responsible, Christian, ethical organization which is working hard to make the Church what it ought to be.

But Jim, the whole point is that George failed to protect the children McCormack abused *after* Dallas. It was not a small gaffe or a sin of omission. He violated the Charter, ignored the advice of his own review board to pull the guy (a man who had been accused of illicit behavior when he was *in seminary*), then tried to explain himself by making the false claim that he couldn't remove McCormack because of canon law. George and his spokespeople were in fact quite defensive when the initial reports about McCormack came out. So, yes, *now* George admits his considerable failures--does he have a choice?--but he didn't initially. And as late as McCormack's sentencing, George's spokeswoman publicly minimized the pedophile's crimes by noting that, hey, he didn't technically rape anyone, after all. (At least not with his penis.) I don't see how anyone can say that the Archdiocese of Chicago has "vigorously and comprehensively" implemented the Charter when three years after its adoption it was so brazenly violated. Why should Chicago Catholics trust that the policies have been fixed or are being followed when the people on whose watch McCormack was allowed to abuse kids are still in their positions or have been promoted? How should they respond when Cardinal George won't tell them what has happened to the officials involved with the case (except for the whistle-blowing principal who was canned)? I can tell you how the Catholic Chicagoans I know have responded: with deep and abiding anger.I don't place blame solely on Cardinal George, and I'm not sure what to make of VOTF's stance here. (I would certainly never compare him to Cardinal Law.) In fact, what disturbs me most about the McCormack-case audits George commissioned and released (to his credit) is how nearly every single person who touched the case--lay and ordained alike--failed to act properly, and in some cases legally. Three years after Dallas, how a lay parent, or a teacher, or a religious could fail so miserably --in Chicago of all places, hardly a stronghold for the clericalist really haunts me.Perhaps second most disturbing is how pathetically the policy to deal with accused priests was enforced or created: McCormack was not only allowed to choose whether he should seek counseling after he was deemed credibly accused by the archdiocese; he could choose the therapist (I believe he chose one who had no expertise in sexual abuse, if I'm not mistaken). Oh, and the priest who was assigned to monitor him? He was never told why. In fact, when he called to ask the vicar if it was all right for him to leave McCormack unwatched for two weeks over the Christmas season, he was told, sure--but let us know if you'll be gone longer. Want to guess what happened during those two weeks?It's also not the first time George has shown bad judgment regarding sexual abusers. Remember the one who was found to be living in the cardinal's mansion in 2003? He didn't mention this to the NRB when they met with him just before the local papers broke the story. So, you can see why I'm not entirely convinced that the cardinal has provided exemplary leadership on this issue.

Hi, Grant, no excuses. I really can't defend what happened in the McCormack case. It's very bad.Regarding the overall picture in the archdiocese - they are, I believe, more or less hitting their goals for training of staff and volunteers, they have released the names of accused priests, there are quite a few instances where credible accusations have rsulted in the accused being pulled from active ministry, and so on. It isn't all dismal. For the most part, it has come off as it should. As I say, McCormack is an anomaly. But no excuses about McCormack.

Btw, it appears that the VOTF letter can be found on this landing page:

Jim,Welcome to the Commonweal circle.The post you referenced above at Tomorrow's Trust originally came to me from Bill Mazzella via the [email protected] discussion group on September 1, 2007.I turned it into an education story but Bill may wish to comment on how he found it.John Borst, editor, Tomorrow's Trust: A Review of Catholic Education, long time reader of Commonweal and occasional poster to this blog.

Thank you, John. It does seem to be a circle, doesn't it? :-)

Jim,I certainly didn't mean to imply that I thought the archdiocese is in shambles--far from it. The Chicago church remains one of the most vibrant in the country. Nor did I mean to suggest that Cardinal George's work as archbishop should be judged solely on his failures in the McCormack case. Indeed, I wrote an article for NCR that included information about his important intervention to save my alma mater, Notre Dame High School for Boys in Niles. Without his early commitment, I don't know if the school would be open today.

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