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George may lead bishops

Chicago cardinal likely to be chosen as voice of American prelates at trying time for church

By Margaret Ramirez and Manya A. Brachear
Tribune religion reporters

November 11, 2007

When the nation's Roman Catholic bishops gather this week in Baltimore, they will likely elect Chicago's archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, to provide the voice for the church in America.

Former presidents of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have led the group to speak out to the nation on topics as far-ranging as nuclear war and abortion, while representing rank-and-file American clergy at the Vatican.

But George, 70, is poised to become president of the bishops' conference at a precarious time. Massive budget and staff cutbacks have diminished the group's influence, even as it struggles to regain credibility amid the continuing sexual abuse crisis.

At the same time, the choice of George—who would be the first cardinal elected to the post and is one of the nation's most senior churchmen—suggests to some observers that the conference itself may be evolving into a new role, one that is as much about Rome speaking to the U.S. bishops as it is about the American church speaking out.

Chester Gillis, chair in Catholic studies in the theology department of Georgetown University, said George's ties to Rome could cut both ways.

"Cardinal George is someone with high visibility and high stature in the church. So, if there were an issue that needed to be brought to the Vatican's attention, he has the status to bring it, and they'll listen to him," said Gillis, author of "Roman Catholicism in America."

"On the other hand, he is someone that is so thoroughly known in many ways and so thoroughly obedient to Rome. Will creativity come to mind? Probably not. Will his vision be to empower the American church or remain obedient to Rome at all costs?"

The appointment of George, who worked in Rome for more than a decade and served as the Vatican's point man on several issues, could raise the profile of the bishops' conference. But it is unclear how the cutbacks at the conference might limit the group's impact.

"Cardinal George takes over a conference that's been stripped down both in infrastructure and ambition, and it's not realistic to expect the same kind of bold new initiatives," said John Allen, a Vatican analyst and columnist for National Catholic Reporter.

"He will really become the first president of the conference in what we might call the 'post-crisis' period. . . . Perhaps his most important role will be to lead the bishops in picking up the pieces and deciding where to go from here."

Some church reform groups and advocates of sexual abuse victims have urged bishops not to elect George. They say his failure to immediately remove Rev. Daniel McCormack from his West Side Chicago parish in 2005, when credible accusations were made, is unacceptable. McCormack pleaded guilty to molesting five boys in July and was sentenced to 5 years in prison.

"Cardinal George has exhibited a fundamental lack of understanding of the impact clergy sex abuse has on children, the seriousness of each accusation, and the need for swift action," said Mary Pat Fox, president of Voice of the Faithful, a lay group formed in response to the sexual abuse scandal.

"The U.S. bishops cannot elect a known enabler of clergy sex abuse as president of the [conference] if they are ever to regain the trust of American Catholics," Fox said.

In 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference were established to address the needs of American Catholics. (The two groups were combined in 2001.) In its early decades, the conference traditionally chose a bishop from a small or mid-size diocese as president, giving a stronger voice to a constituency that was not as well-connected in Rome.

It was in the 1970s and 1980s, beginning under the leadership of then-Archbishop Joseph Bernardin—then in Cincinnati, before he was posted to Chicago and elevated to cardinal—that the bishops' conference rose to international prominence.

Russell Shaw, information director for the bishops' conference from 1969 to 1987, said the high-point for the bishops came when they adopted the 1983 pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace," which defined church teaching on war, peace and the nuclear arms race.

The conference "took on this aura of omnicompetence and was trying to cover the waterfront of Catholic concerns in the United States. But, it had neither the resources nor the canonical authority to do that," said Shaw. "Over time, the inherent limitations of the conference became increasingly apparent. . . . There is just so much that a national organization can do."

Pope John Paul II began to rein in the national conferences in 1998, when he ruled that conferences could not issue authoritative teaching unless approved by the Vatican.

"If Rome were to empower these national constituencies, it would conflict with its own power," said Gillis, of Georgetown.

By then, the American bishops' budget crunch had worsened, as spending on research and committees outstripped the group's revenues. That was followed by the 2002 sexual abuse scandal.

"Survey after survey showed that as much as people were appalled by behavior of predatory priests, they were more appalled by behavior of bishops in covering up," said Rev. Richard McBrien, theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. "They did it to themselves. If they're going to regain [credibility], it's going to take a long time."

Recently, George said one priority for the bishops should be strengthening Catholic identity. That would include reaffirmation of the church's teaching on hot-button political issues which are being debated in the presidential campaign.

At their meeting in Baltimore this week, bishops are expected to approve a document on "Faithful Citizenship," a political guide issued every four years before the election. But, for the first time, the bishops will debate and vote on this sensitive document in public.

Shaw, the former information director, said if the conference focuses on fewer issues and regaining trust, it could become effective again.

"Gifted as he is, I don't think Cardinal George is a miracle worker," Shaw said. "But, he's probably as well-equipped, and arguably better equipped, than anybody else on the scene at the national level in the Catholic Church in the United States at the present time. If anybody can pull it off, it's Francis George."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests