Bishops Embrace Opposite Of Transparency
BALTIMORE — Inside a hotel ballroom along the waterfront here, many of the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops repeated a single, anguished refrain: Humility is in order. We, the high priests, are no longer trusted. The faithful see us as complicit in crimes against children for our handling of clergy sexual abuse. We must finally include ourselves in the firing line of justice. Then there was Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput. In an encounter that lasted all of 83 seconds, the not-one-to-mince-words prelate spoke instead like a Jimmy Cagney brawler. It happened during a break at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting. The bishops had just been told that the Vatican wanted them to put off a vote on any proposals this week that would subject bishops to investigations run by lay people. I sought Chaput’s thoughts on the shocker. I have been critical of Chaput’s efforts to block victims from suing the church. I wanted to hear from him. The meeting of bishops that began Monday was a historic one. Its focus almost entirely was on reforming church leadership in light of the Pennsylvania grand jury report in August. That document named hundreds of abuser priests across six dioceses. All eight of the state’s dioceses are now under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. “Maria Panaritis. Philadelphia Inquirer,” I said. “Pleasure to meet you, archbishop.” Chaput was sitting in an aisle seat as the ballroom was emptying for lunch. “Hi, Maria,” he said. “I’ve seen your stuff, of course. Never positive about us. Always negative.” “Well,” I replied, “this is a tough scandal. This is a tough one.” I had just approached two other Pennsylvania bishops, Lawrence Persico of Erie, and Edward Malesic of Greensburg, and been greeted graciously. Both said they were surprised and distressed by the pope’s request. I asked them, why does the church need to delay action on a problem that has been well known among leaders since at least the 2002 Boston scandal? “If I knew the answer to that,” Persico said, “I’d be in heaven. Because I can’t figure it out. I don’t know.” Chaput, however, made no room to talk about the issue at hand. Instead, he vented about bad press. He brought up an Inquirer story, published Monday, that disclosed details of his handling of a seminarian harassment complaint in Colorado, when he was leader of the Denver archdiocese. “Did you see, you saw the job they tried to do on me this morning?” Chaput said. No. I was in the car driving down, I said. “Why don’t you read it, because I’m not talking to anybody,” he said. Here I was, in a ballroom that just a few hours earlier had been filled with the monotone of hundreds of holy men chanting and praying. Now, in that same place, I was in what felt like a scene from “The Wire,” the archbishop playing the role of a disgruntled Baltimore City Hall politico. “What do you think of the delay?” I asked about the Vatican putting off bishop accountability. “I’m not gonna say a word to you,” Chaput replied. “I don’t trust The Inquirer. You’re out to get the church.” “Meaning what?” I asked. “I’m not gonna respond anymore,” he said. “Your paper wants headlines and wants news.” “This is, I will tell you, the hardest story, journalistically, to do because of all of the broken hearts,” I said. “It is a lot of broken hearts,” Chaput agreed. And we cordially parted ways. Chaput, I later learned, was turning down all requests for interviews from Philadelphia journalists at the conference — an audacious move for a meeting whose primary function was to increase the transparency of the nation’s Catholic bishops. There were many contradictions at the conference. Calls by some bishops for urgent action, gripes by others over the relentless scrutiny of their affairs. But I found the most deeply spiritual group in the most unlikely place. Outside on the icy waterfront Tuesday afternoon. A group of 33 people had come down from a Philadelphia parish to protest, in the hopes that bishops would hear their demand for changes. They had traveled to the Inner Harbor with their beloved priest, Rev. Christopher Walsh, a straight talker of a more gentle ilk. Walsh has freely spoken, in penitent terms, about the church’s failings from the pulpit as pastor of St. Raymond of Penafort in Mount Airy. “Every other week he’s apologizing” for the church, said 85-year-old Geri Dennis. “It’s almost as if he’s so ashamed that he can’t change anything. But we are the change. That’s what he tells us. We are the change.” Father Walsh chartered the bus. It was also his idea to start the day with Mass in Philly, then breakfast, then prayer. After that, the bus ride down for one day to join other lay protesters outside the conference hotel. They held signs and bore witness. Their priest is just 49 years old and was ordained in 1999. He has ministered mostly amid the winds of scandal. And yet, the son of a scaffolding man has been steady and calm. “I’m called,” he said, “to shepherd people through a very difficult time in the history of the church.” It is a humble message. One that his own bishop would do well to emulate. MARIA PANARITIS writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.