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USCCB meeting provoked ‘surprise and full range of emotions,’ bishop says

Bishop Paul Sirba said that when he and his fellow bishops learned that the Holy See had asked them not to vote on a set of proposals regarding the clergy sex abuse scandal during the annual November meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the announcement was met among the bishops with “surprise and a full range of emotions.”

While the proposals that had been put forward may have needed refining, Bishop Sirba felt they were solid, and he had been in “full support” of them. What’s more, the bishops were bringing to the meeting the fruit of having dialogued with the faithful in their dioceses.

“I had had opportunity to listen to the priests and their concerns and our deacons and their wives and their concerns and numerous of the lay faithful who have expressed a desire that we take action, strongly and firmly,” Bishop Sirba said.

But he also knew something else. “I pledge obedience to the Holy Father, as well,” he said. So he took the moment as an opportunity to step back and consider how to remain open to the situation.

That seems to have been aided by what Bishop Sirba described as a “very powerful prayer experience” on the first day of the meeting.

Included in that prayer experience were testimonies from victims of clergy sexual abuse, which the bishop described as powerful both for what was expressed and for the people who expressed those things, who remain practicing, fervent Catholics.

He said it “reinforced our need to be doing all we can … but also, in the context of prayer, it gave hope.”

The bishop said he remains in favor of the revised proposals Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB, is taking to the Vatican meeting.

“I still would like to see that we take the strongest possible actions at the earliest possible moment,” Bishop Sirba said. “… The reality that’s been revealed points to serious moral failures on the part of those in church leadership, and it’s caused a great deal of anger and sadness, confusion, and has raised many questions among the lay faithful.”

While fixing these problems remains “the work of our lifetime,” he said he is hopeful God is opening the church up to a more universal response to a problem that’s “not just here in the United States but a global one.”

Echoing Cardinal Dinardo, he said, “My hope is first of all grounded in Christ, who desires that the church be purified and that our efforts bear fruit.”

The Archbishop McCarrick vote

Another stunning moment of the November meeting came when the bishops attempted to vote on a statement supporting the investigation into disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who is accused of sexual abuse of both minors and seminarians.

After debate over the wording, the measure was voted down.

For his part, Bishop Sirba said his sense is that there is more unanimity than the vote might suggest and that the “sense of the bishops is that there be a full investigation surrounding the situation of Archbishop McCarrick.”

He suggested the unusual way the measure came to the floor, with language being drafted by hundreds of bishops, bogged things down and contributed to the vote.

Justifed anger

The meeting’s outcomes produced a major uproar, and Bishop Sirba said he understands it.

“I think the anger is justified, but it’s also an emotion that should motivate us to action, and then for us, individually, it’s to discern what’s the positive response that I take to the anger I feel.”

And without taking away anything from what the church needs to do to fix these serious problems, he said one response of everyone should be a recommitment to the call to holiness.

“I truly believe that reform of the church happens by people responding to God’s grace,” he said. “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” He said he has been personally motivated by his encounters with many Catholics who, in response, have resolved on becoming “more intentional about living out their faith.” He said he is seeing “good Catholics becoming better Catholics.”

And he underscored the need to have “hope and trust in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who in all things loves us, encourages us, and will help us no matter what circumstances we face.”

— By Deacon Kyle Eller / The Northern Cross