Pope Warns U.S. Bishops Against Disunity Over Sex Abuse

Pope Warns U.S. Bishops Against Disunity Over Sex Abuse

Pope Francis warned U.S. Catholic bishops against disunity in the church, after months of conflict between the bishops and the Vatican over how to respond to the clerical sex abuse crisis.

Catholics “continue to suffer greatly” from clerical sex abuse and coverups by bishops, “as well as the pain of seeing an episcopate lacking in unity and concentrated more on pointing fingers than on seeking paths of reconciliation,” the pope wrote in a letter distributed to the bishops this week as they gathered for a spiritual retreat outside Chicago.

He also rebuked the bishops for “disparaging, discrediting, playing the victim or the scold” and admonished them to “break the vicious circle of recrimination, undercutting and discrediting, by avoiding gossip and slander.”

Those were apparent allusions to accusations by a former Vatican diplomat that the pope ignored sexual misconduct by a U.S. cardinal. Many U.S. bishops have said publicly that they found the accusations credible.

The letter, dated Jan. 1, is Pope Francis’ most explicit acknowledgment yet of the tensions between him and the U.S. episcopate. It comes less than two months before bishops from around the world are set to gather at the Vatican for a four-day summit on sex abuse, following clerical abuse scandals last year in the U.S., Latin America, Europe and Australia.

Pope Francis issued a sweeping apology for the sexual abuse charges surrounding the Catholic church at the end of his two-day visit in Ireland. (Originally published Aug. 26, 2018)

The summit is likely to highlight the divergent approaches to combating abuse among bishops globally, and hence the challenge of forging a common response.

Writing after the Vatican in November stopped the bishops from voting on anti-abuse measures at their annual meeting in Baltimore, the pope told the bishops they couldn’t regain credibility lost over sex abuse by “issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flow charts, as if we were in charge of a department of human resources,” but through humble service to their people.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, voiced disappointment in November when the Vatican halted the plan to vote on new protocols for handling complaints against bishops. Vatican officials said they didn’t have enough time to review the proposed measures before the November assembly.

Tension between the bishops and the Vatican has been growing since the summer, when Cardinal DiNardo publicly called on Pope Francis to order an investigation into the rise to power of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, who in July became the first man in nearly a century to lose the title of cardinal after a church investigation found credible a claim that he had abused a teenager in the early 1970s.

After Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò in late August publicly accused Pope Francis of ignoring Archbishop McCarrick’s history of sexual misconduct with seminarians and priests and making him a powerful adviser, Cardinal DiNardo said those accusations also deserved answers.

Archbishop McCarrick has said he is innocent of the accusation involving the teenager and his lawyer has said he expects due process regarding the other accusations. The former cardinal is facing the possibility of dismissal from the priesthood.

Pope Francis declined to answer Archbishop Viganò’s accusations or to order a full-fledged investigation of the McCarrick affair, though the Vatican has promised a “thorough study” of its archives relevant to the case.

In September, the pope asked Cardinal DiNardo and other U.S.C.C.B. leaders to cancel their annual November meeting and hold a retreat instead. The bishops declined to cancel the meeting but organized a retreat for this week.

In his letter to the bishops, the pope said he had hoped to attend the Chicago retreat himself but was unable to do so “for logistical reasons.”

Tensions between the Vatican and U.S. church leaders aren’t limited to sex abuse. Many of the bishops have resisted the pope’s relative leniency on divorce and his moves to de-emphasize church teaching on sexual and medical ethics in favor of issues such as the environment and economic inequality.

Write to Francis X. Rocca at francis.rocca@wsj.com

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