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Issue Date:  November 25, 2005

Bishops scale back conference

Truncated meeting in D.C. heralds evolving strategy to limit activities


Approximately 300 U.S. bishops met for four days just blocks from the nation’s capital -- and few outside ecclesiastical circles noticed. Which was part of the plan.

Of the 10 items up for debate and vote at the truncated public sessions of the Nov. 14-17 annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, eight dealt with intrachurch issues. Among the topics: the $131 million budget for the bishops’ national conference, a new lectionary for children’s Masses, the role of lay ecclesial ministers, and guidelines for the treatment of retired bishops.

Just two items addressed broader concerns: a statement reiterating the bishops’ opposition to the death penalty and a resolution of support for a day of “remembrance and prayer for mariners and people of the sea.” Both won hearty endorsement.

The low-key approach to the bishops’ gatherings -- limiting their collective statements on hot-button issues with political overtones and restricting public access to their deliberations -- is part of an evolving strategy likely to be even more pronounced in years to come. Numerous bishops have indicated a desire to hold more meetings outside public view. And a strategic planning document drafted by a committee chaired by Pittsburg Bishop Donald Wuerl called for the body to “focus on a more limited range of responsibilities and activities in the future.”

Even such seemingly benign actions as commemorating the 20th anniversary of their pastoral letter on the economy -- “Economic Justice for All” -- are out of fashion. “The conference has clearly indicated its desire to limit anniversary statements of other documents,” according to a list of proposals rejected by the Committee on Priorities and Plans.

“A lot of the bishops are tired of statements and they question their utility and therefore we’re going to have fewer statements and probably have shorter meetings,” Cincinnati Bishop Daniel Pilarczyk, a former president of the conference, told NCR.

In years past, the bishops typically met in public session for at least three of the four days of their annual November meeting. But in the wake of intense and unprecedented media coverage resulting from the sex abuse crisis, there is a new normal. A cryptic Nov. 1 release from the bishops’ press office cautioned the media: “The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will conclude its public sessions at its fall meeting at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill at noon on Tuesday, Nov. 15.” The release continued, “The remainder of the fall meeting … will either be in executive session for the full body of bishops or the bishops meeting in their USCCB regions, neither of which are open to the media.”

The message to the national press was clear: Keep moving. Nothing to see here.

It was in “executive session” -- two-and-a-half days of the four-day gathering were closed to the press and public -- where, apparently, the controversial issues were discussed. Though the bishops’ spokesperson, Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, told an information-hungry press corps that “both the topics and the discussion [of the executive sessions] are not public,” some participants in the private meetings distributed some crumbs of information. Among the items said to be slated for closed consideration: the clergy sex abuse crisis and the bishops’ response to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. Also slated for private discussion, according to Santa Fe, N.M., Archbishop Michael Sheehan, chairman of the Priorities and Plans Committee, was the effort to narrow the conference’s agenda.

In its public document, the committee recommended four areas for conference focus over a three-to five-year period beginning as early as 2007: faith formation, vocations, marriage and family, and pro-life activities. Exactly what issues are deemed subsets of the four central themes, and therefore appropriate for the national body of bishops to grapple with, is unknown to outsiders and clearly a point of concern to some bishops. The four enunciated priorities, Sacramento, Calif., Bishop William Weigand said from the floor of the public assembly, mean “engagement with the world is getting short shrift.”

Under the broad outlines of the strategic plan, more of the work currently conducted by the bishops collectively and by their Washington-based staff will take place at regional and diocesan levels. To carry out that mandate, representatives from each of the U.S. church’s 14 regions are represented on the Priority and Plans Committee. The bishops agreed to extend the terms of the regional representatives to the committee through November 2006 to provide continuity as the bishops decide what level of the church will take on what responsibilities.

Plans for a “restructured USCCB” will be presented to the full body of bishops at their meeting next November, according to the schedule outlined by Sheehan.

“There’s a desire to get a lot of the work out of the way at the regional level,” said Pilarczyk. “However,” he continued, “it’s my experience that it doesn’t always work out that way. What happens is that [we] come to the national level and discuss it all over again.”

Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., Bishop John Ricard, outgoing chairman of the bishops Committee on International Policy, shared Pilarczyk’s skepticism.

“Frankly, most of us experience that the regions don’t work effectively. They are a good place to convene and talk about our priorities,” said Ricard, but the work necessary to carry through on the priorities “requires staff and resources and that can only be afforded at the national level.”

Said Ricard, “You can’t duplicate what you have at the national level 14 times over.”

The conference’s committees on international affairs and domestic social development issues will continue to ensure that work on those issues “doesn’t slip through the cracks,” conference president William Skylstad, bishop of Spokane, Wash., told NCR. Further, said Skylstad, the new emphasis will guarantee “much broader consultation than we’ve had before” because more bishops will have genuine input.

“I don’t think engagement with the world is getting short shrift,” said Sheehan, “because one of those priorities is the defense of human life and dignity and that includes not just abortion and euthanasia but also means the concern for the poor and concern about the death penalty and the elderly.” Further, said Sheehan, the conference’s response to the clergy sex abuse crisis remains a priority though it is not included among the focus areas developed by the planning committee. “This will continue to be an extremely important issue for the bishops’ conference and we will in no way pull back on our commitment in the Dallas charter to protecting children,” said Sheehan.

Meanwhile, conference president Skylstad, in one of the few public allusions from the floor to the clergy sex abuse crisis, told the bishops that priest morale remains high despite the scandal. Further, said Skylstad, research indicates that Catholics think highly of their priests.

“This is a reassuring reminder,” said Sklylstad, “that our Catholic people think of the priesthood in terms of the many faithful men whom they have encountered in their lives and do not judge all by the unfaithfulness, as terribly damaging as it has been, of a few.”

In other areas the bishops:

  • Discussed, in occasionally passionate terms, a new English translation of the Roman Missal for use in the United States. A survey of bishops released by the Committee on Liturgy showed that nearly half the bishops considered the new translation only “fair” or “poor,” while a similar number rated it “excellent” or “good.” The Liturgy Committee will continue to discuss the translation, which requires approval by two-thirds of the U.S. bishops.
  • Voted to name Msgr. David Malloy general secretary of the conference. Malloy has served as associate general secretary for the past five years, and succeeds Msgr. William Fay, who held the top administrative post at the conference for five years.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

Off the agenda, but still in the spotlight

For the first time in six public gatherings over the past three-and-a-half years, the issue of the bishops’ response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis was nowhere to be found on the open agenda of the Nov. 14-17 meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But that didn’t keep the issue from intruding on the gathering.

On Nov. 14, as the bishops discussed revisions to the Order of the Mass in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency, family members of two Wisconsin funeral home workers allegedly murdered by a priest suspected of abusing teenagers conducted a news conference outside the hotel. The priest, Fr. Ryan Erickson, committed suicide in December 2004 as it became clear that police investigators were focusing their attention on him as a suspect in the February 2002 murders of Daniel O’Connell and James Ellison.

According to the O’Connell family, Daniel, on the day before his death, confronted the priest about allegations of abuse. Daniel O’Connell and James Ellison were shot to death in the O’Connell funeral home the following day.

Last month, a Wisconsin judge ruled that there was probable cause to believe that Erickson murdered the two. Erickson, the families said, had a long history of abuse and bizarre behavior that was known to officials in the Superior, Wis., diocese. “I don’t think he would be dead if the bishops had done their job” of properly screening prospective priests, said Sally Ellison, whose son, James, was working as an intern at the O’Connell funeral home when he was killed.

“We’re not here to tear down the church. We’re here to improve it,” said Daniel O’Connell’s brother Tom. Neither family has sued the diocese or has plans to do so, said their attorney.

The families asked to meet with Bishop William Skylstad, president of the bishops’ conference. Instead, they met in the hotel lobby with Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection. They presented Kettelkamp with a “five-point plan” they said would help prevent future abuse. Among the provisions of that plan: “an enforcement mechanism” against bishops who ordain questionable candidates to the priesthood, full disclosure of all those credibly accused of abuse, and church support for the elimination of criminal and civil statute of limitations laws.

“Legislators have to think very carefully about the implications of lifting statutes of limitations,” Tucson, Ariz., Bishop Gerald Kicanas told the media at a regularly scheduled news briefing. Kicanas noted that such laws exist because the truth of a situation is more difficult to discern after years have passed.

Further, said Kicanas, the proper forum for addressing the families’ concern is with “the diocesan bishop in his own diocese.” The O’Connell family has yet to hear from Superior Bishop Raphael Fliss. Sally Ellison said she had a phone conversation last month with Fliss following intense local media coverage of the case.

-- Joe Feuerherd

National Catholic Reporter, November 25, 2005

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