By RENEE WEBB
When Bishop Walker Nickless of the Diocese of Sioux City attended the fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops held Nov. 12-14 in Baltimore, he could feel “a real somber kind of mood among the bishops.”
“As I think about the time we spent together as bishops in the United States, in this difficult time in the church, I appreciated the fact that we did have time to come together as brother bishops,” said Bishop Nickless.
He was grateful for the opportunity “to hear from one another, to support one another and to encourage one another as we try to deal with the difficult issue of clergy sexual misconduct both by priests and bishops in the church.”
The bishop acknowledged he was surprised when Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the USCCB, began the meeting by informing the bishops the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops had asked them not to vote on key issues pertaining to clergy sexual misconduct until after the heads of bishops’ conferences throughout the world met in February of 2019.
“It was a slight disappointment, but it was still an opportunity for us to discuss, as brother bishops, important things to our church and each of us,” Bishop Nickless said. “We decided it was very important that we discuss, we debate, we do the best we can to get the issues to the fore and do so in a public forum where people could hear what we wanted to say and the things we wanted done.”
The three issues the bishops had planned to vote on all were designed to strengthen accountability of the episcopate. They included:
- A proposal for “Standards of Episcopal Conduct.”
- A proposal to establish a special commission for review of complaints against bishops for violating standards of accountability.
- A protocol regarding restrictions on bishops who were removed from or resigned their office due to sexual abuse of minors, sexual harassment of or misconduct with adults or negligence in office.
While a vote on these proposals has been held off until a date yet to be determined, Bishop Nickless said he was pleased with the discussion. They spoke about the importance of having an outside contact person for complaints about bishops and along with a strong lay involvement in Diocesan Review Boards, as has been done in the Diocese of Sioux City.
“Cardinal DiNardo promised all of us that he would take our concerns back to the Holy Father,” the bishop said. “As our representative from the United States, he would share those with the rest of the bishops’ conferences presidents and the Holy Father.”
The bishops did vote on other issues such a new document on diversity in the church, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love — A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” which had been in the works for several years.
“It’s about racism and the respect we owe to the diverse cultures in our country,” said Bishop Nickless. “It was well-received, almost every bishop voted for it.”
After hearing from Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz of the Diocese of Jackson, Miss., he said the bishops gave support for the advancement of the canonization cause of Sister Thea Bowman. The great-granddaughter of slaves, she was the only African-American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who helped to transcend racism in the 20th century.
Bishop Nickless said the bishops also supported a statement on persons with disabilities, “A Call to Encounter and to Wholeness.”
The statement was issued by the board for National Catholic Partnership on Disability on 40th anniversary of the bishops’ “Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons With Disabilities.” The new document affirmed the positives happening for inclusion of persons with disabilities in the church and the call to continue the work.
Other talks related to the abuse crisis. They heard from a seminary rector who informed the bishops about how the screening process is done for seminarians and offered tips for the evaluation and acceptance of seminary candidates.
“We heard from the victim’s assistance coordinator who talked about the importance of making sure that whenever we deal with sexual abuse, we must give special attention to the victims,” Bishop Nickless said. “The victims need to know that they are listened to and that we will do everything we can to help them if they have been hurt in any way by priests or bishops.”
One of the most enriching days of the meeting for the bishop was on Monday, as it was a day of prayer that started with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. During that time, two victims of sexual abuse shared their thoughts as did a religious sister who has worked with victims of clergy sexual misconduct.
“There was an opportunity for confessions, for recitation of the rosary and then we concluded with a special Mass of reparation, prayer and penance,” said Bishop Nickless, who noted it was followed by a simple meal of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. “It was a reminder for us as bishops to do prayer, penance and fasting to make reparation for our sins.”
One morning, bishops were able to gather in smaller regional groups for additional conversation. Bishop Nickless met with bishops of Region IX from Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa.
The bishops were reminded of their week-long retreat at Mundelein Seminary near Chicago beginning Jan. 2 featuring Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the papal preacher.
“Even though it was a difficult meeting, I come away with hope that together we are able to do this,” Bishop Nickless said. “One of my big takeaways is that I was impressed by the seriousness to which the bishops have taken this issue.”