Ethics & Public Policy Center

What to Watch for in the New Year

Published in The Catholic Thing on January 2, 2020


The beginning of a new year is usually a time for hope, a chance to make a fresh start. Given all the Church has been through in the past year, the usual optimism that comes with a new year –and a new decade – seems a bit diminished.

But it hasn’t been all bad. In fact, some very important steps have been taken in the right direction: The American bishops met on retreat in Mundelein; Theodore McCarrick was laicized; the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences met in Rome for a summit on clerical sexual abuse; Pope Francis published new universal norms (Vos estis lux mundi) for holding bishops accountable.

In June, the USCCB took some modest, but important measures of its own. Pope Francis lifted the pontifical secret for several kinds of cases and accusations involving sexual abuse by clergy, raised the statutory age for the definition of child pornography (to 18 years, up from 14 years), and opened new roles for lay canonists in the trials of priests accused of abuse crimes.

Taken individually, none of these might seem like a revolution, but taken together, these changes add up to something substantial. At least as important, there are signs that the default settings of our ecclesiastical culture are moving – slowly but surely – towards transparency and accountability, at least when it comes to clerical sexual abuse. With that said, here are some things to look forward to – at least, in a manner of speaking – in the coming year.

The McCarrick Report. Rome has promised to issue a report on the Theodore McCarrick case, but it hasn’t said when the report will be released. Rumors were that a report would come out before then end of 2019. Then it was early 2020. While this may still happen, it’s also possible that the report will be delayed much longer. Regardless of when the McCarrick report is released, it is sure to reignite anger and frustration and thrust the abuse crisis back into the headlines.

As we learned from the unusual, last-minute delay in the beatification of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, the Vatican (and some American bishops) are very sensitive to the fact that civil investigations are ongoing in many U.S. jurisdictions, including New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. – all places where McCarrick spent large portions of his ecclesiastical career. Releasing an official Vatican report about who in Rome knew what and when about McCarrick’s depravities (assuming the report is forthright), in the midst of ongoing civil investigations into the same matters, could invite unwanted legal complications for the Church.

Speaking of legal matters, virtually every state that allows for state-wide investigations has either begun, promised to begin, or already completed such an investigation into the handling of clerical sex abuse cases by the Catholic Church.

In addition, a rash of state laws have been passed, which temporarily relax the statutes of limitations for civil cases of child sexual abuse. New York’s “lookback window” opened this past August and will continue for one year. New Jersey’s window just opened last month and will remain open for two years. California has a three-year window that just opened yesterday. Arizona, Montana, Hawaii, and North Carolina have all passed similar laws. Vermont went so far as to eliminate the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse altogether.

To put it another way, while the long-term spiritual costs of this iteration of the abuse crisis are almost impossible to measure and will take decades to fully realize, the most significant legal and financial consequences of the crisis that broke in 2018 will start to land home in 2020.

Another change that will come this year: episcopal appointments. By my count, seventeen Latin-rite ordinaries (heads of dioceses or archdioceses) in the United States are either already past the mandatory retirement age of 75 or will turn 75 before the end of 2020. Cardinal Sean O’Malley in Boston and Archbishop Charles Chaput in Philadelphia have both already turned 75, as did Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville is not yet 75, but has been in very poor health. (Pray for him.) Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, a diocese which is home to 1.5 million Catholics, also turned 75 this past year while Bishop Gerald Barnes of San Bernardino, home to 1.7 million Catholics, will be 75 in June of 2020.

It’s unlikely that all of these men will be replaced in the next twelve months, but the chances are high that several archdioceses and/or very large dioceses will be getting new bishops before the year is out.

Speaking of retirements, Cardinal Donald Wuerl will be turning 80 in November. Pope Francis was clearly reluctant to accept Wuerl’s resignation as Archbishop of Washington, as evidenced by the glowing letter the pope wrote to Wuerl when he finally did accept. While Wuerl is no longer the head of a diocese, he has retained his membership at the Congregation for Bishops where he is one of only two Americans. Wuerl will automatically lose membership at the Congregation upon turning 80 years old. Unless Pope Francis appoints another American, the year is likely to end with Cardinal Cupich of Chicago as the only remaining American on the Congregation for Bishops.

One final thing to watch in 2020: how will the bishops behave in a presidential election year? Their collective credibility is at a low ebb, but that might also lead some to wonder what they have to lose by speaking their minds. We shall see.

Undoubtedly, the new year will bring its share of surprises. Maybe one of the surprises of 2020 will be that this new year exceeds expectations. In this first week of the New Year, I have just enough optimism to think that might happen for once.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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