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Bishop Barnes reflects on November meeting of U.S. Bishops

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SAN BERNARDINO—The last-minute directive from the Vatican not to vote on proposed reforms addressing clergy sexual abuse was, indeed, stunning and unexpected but it did not stop U.S. Bishops from making progress on the issue during their Fall gathering in Baltimore, according to Bishop Gerald Barnes.

 “By the end of the time I felt that even though we hadn’t taken a vote, we made it known where we stood as a conference,” he said of the meeting, which took place Nov. 12-14.

 Bishop Barnes gave a one-hour talk at the Diocesan Pastoral Center on Nov. 29 for those interested hearing his perspective on the November meeting. Many American Catholics had looked to the meeting as a moment for the Bishops to show a plan of action to address the sexual abuse crisis, which has re-emerged this year in the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report issued in August and revelations about Archbishop Theodore McCarrick.

 On the first day of the bishops’ meeting Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), announced that the Vatican had just a day earlier requested that a package of proposed reforms not be taken up for a formal vote. 

 “We were all dismayed and shocked,” Bishop Barnes said during his Nov. 29 talk. “It put a damper on the rest of the day.”

 Pope Francis will be convening a worldwide meeting of the presidents of the Episcopal Conferences in February to discuss a global response the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Bishop Barnes said he thinks the Vatican did not want the U.S. Bishops to ratify any reforms prior to the global summit to ensure that there is a consistent approach to the issue throughout the Universal Church and it can be thoroughly discussed from different cultural perspectives. While the scandal has again exploded in the U.S. media, Bishop Barnes said he believes the problem of clergy sexual abuse and the response of some bishops to it, exists all over the world.

 American Catholics may not be happy about waiting for an international discussion and approach, Bishop Barnes acknowledged.

 “We want answers and we want them now,” he said. “But you can’t do that in talking with the bishops of Indonesia or Finland or Swaziland. There has to be a dialogue.”

 Despite being told not to formally vote on proposed reforms the bishops engaged in a robust discussion of potential actions to address the crisis, Bishop Barnes said. In the end they agreed to send Cardinal DiNardo to the February gathering with a list of five proposed reforms.

 • The establishment of a national hotline for the reporting of abuse claims against bishops

 • The establishment of a Lay Review Board (either at a national level or several regional board)

 • A code of conduct for bishops

 • A protocol for the handling of retired and resigned bishops who are later found to be credibly accused of sexual abuse, themselves, or negligent in their oversight of clergy who commit abuse

 • A request for all information related to the Vatican’s response to abuse allegations brought against Archbishop McCarrick.

 Bishop Barnes will join a majority of U.S. bishops in Chicago during the first week of January for a retreat that is meant to help them further reflect in prayer on how to respond to the sexual abuse crisis. He said that time, and the prayer time spent during the November meeting, are critical in their discernment of how to proceed. He revealed that Pope Francis had asked the U.S. bishops to cancel their November meeting and instead gather for a retreat. That suggestion was part of the motivation of the bishops’ January retreat.

 “He was so pleased because he felt that we needed to be together in prayer,” Bishop Barnes said of the reaction of Pope Francis to news of the January retreat. “And he’s right.”

 At the conclusion of his talk, Bishop Barnes welcomed questions and comments from those who had gathered to hear. Some confessed that the scandal has shaken their faith, to which the Bishop expressed acceptance, and hope.

 “Our credibility is very low,” he said of the U.S. bishops. “But this can lead to a rebirth.”