Another big story from alternative Catholic press: Cupich and Wuerl teamed up on what?

When I was breaking into the mainstream religion-news biz — soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust — the words “church press” basically meant one thing.

It meant working for the news office in a denomination’s headquarters or, perhaps, in the outreach office of a religious non-profit. In other words, it was one step from the world of public relations.

As the old saying goes: It’s hard to cover a war when a general is signing your paycheck.

However, the Internet has — year after year — been blurring many of these lines. The denominational press is still out there, but so are lots of non-profit publications that offer an often dizzying mix of commentary and factual news.

This is especially true for reporters covering Catholic news. As my colleague Clemente Lisi noted the other day, referring to developments on scandals surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick:

The growth of conservative Catholic outlets, for example, and their ability to break stories against “Uncle Ted” has coincided with the internal struggle contrasting what traditionalists see as inadequate news coverage from the mainstream media regarding Pope Francis’ leadership. Filling that void are conservative journalists and bloggers on a mission to expose what they see as the Vatican’s progressive hierarchy.

In 2002, an investigation by The Boston Globe unearthed decades of abuse by clergy never before reported to civil authorities (click here for links). These days, accusations of wrongdoing within the Catholic Church are being exposed by smaller news organizations. No longer are mainstream outlets setting the pace here.

Yes, he stressed developments on the pro-Catechism side of Catholic life. Why? Well, there has always been a lively market for Catholic news and commentary coming from the doctrinal, cultural and, yes, political left. The assumption was that official Catholic news offices would be defending the doctrinal fort.

This is no longer a safe assumption. Take a look, for example, at that “trusted” list of Catholic news outlets (at the top of this post), produced the other day by Father Thomas Rosica, head of the Salt & Light Catholic Media Foundation in Canada. Notice any patterns in this list? Any obvious holes?

This brings us to a hot take — care of the Catholic News Agency — on the recent meetings held by the U.S. Catholic bishops. The big news in Baltimore, of course, was the decision by higher ups at the Vatican (Pope Francis even) to prevent these bishops from moving forward on plans to make it easier to hold bishops and cardinals accountable on issues linked to acts of sexual abuse and harassment by priests, bishops and even cardinals.

Three questions continue to loom in the background, during any discussions of these topics: Who promoted McCarrick? Who protected McCarrick? Who did McCarrick then protect and promote, as a powerbroker in America and Rome? With that in mind, read on:

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington collaborated extensively on a recently proposed policy for handling abuse allegations against bishops, CNA has learned.

Cupich submitted the plan Tuesday to leaders of the U.S. bishops’ conference, proffering it as an alternative to a proposal that had been devised by conference officials and staffers.

The conference’s proposed plan would have established an independent lay-led commission to investigate allegations against bishops. The Cupich-Wuerl plan would instead send allegations against bishops to be investigated by their metropolitan archbishops, along with archdiocesan review boards. Metropolitans themselves would be investigated by their senior suffragan bishops.

Sources in Rome and Washington, DC told CNA that Wuerl and Cupich worked together on their alternative plan for weeks, and presented it to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops before the U.S. bishops’ conference assembly in Baltimore. Cupich and Wuerl are both members of the Congregation for Bishops.

The Cupich-Wuerl plan was submitted to the U.S. bishops even after a Vatican directive was issued Monday barring U.S. bishops from voting on any abuse-related measures. The Vatican suspended USCCB policy-making on sexual abuse until after a February meeting involving the heads of bishops’ conferences from around the world.

The “Wuerl plan” gambit — to be blunt — raises another question: Who does Rome recognize as the real leaders of the Catholic church in the United States? Thus:

Sources familiar with the behind-the-scenes discussions in Baltimore told CNA that Wuerl chose to step back from the plan’s presentation, providing advice and counsel but not seeking to take public credit. A spokesman for Wuerl declined to comment on that decision.

Several bishops in Baltimore told CNA that Cupich appeared to be positioning himself as an unofficial but influential policy-maker in the conference. His status would be strengthened if the plan he introduced in Baltimore gained support in Rome, they said, especially if it were favored over the plan proposed by conference officials.

There’s another option, of course: What if the Wuerl-Cupich plan was developed at the request of Rome, or with a hidden nod of support?

There are many, many other details swirling in the fog surrounding this story, of course, including ties that bind between Wuerl and McCarrick, and some would say Cupich. However, it’s impossible to deny that a key factor in how church leaders — and maybe even secular journalists — see the information contained in this CNA report.

I am referring to these words: “Catholic News Agency is an apostolate of EWTN News.”

Ah. CNA is not on the “trusted” list of the Pope Francis era establishment. Noted.

Now, a newsroom that is on that list — one that publishes quite a few voices on the Catholic left and right — has come back with a response from Cardinal Cupich, who is not amused. The headline at Crux: “Cupich denies he and Wuerl hatched rival plan before Baltimore.” The opening salvo:

NEW YORK — Cardinal Blase Cupich is firing back against claims that he sought to advance an alternative proposal for bishop accountability ahead of last week’s meeting in Baltimore, in place of the plan put forth by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

“The allegation is false,” the archbishop of Chicago told Crux on Sunday, in response to a Catholic News Agency (CNA) report Friday that he and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington collaborated on a separate proposal.

“At no time prior to the Baltimore meeting did the two of us collaborate in developing, nor even talk about, an alternative plan,” he said.

Now, this is a classic media standoff.

Cupich says one thing. CNA has “sources in Rome and Washington” that say something else.

Read both stories and look for connections and contradictions, in terms of the history of the “metropolitan” plan. Look for discussions of canon law, for example.

Then there is one more thing that news consumers have to do, these days: Wait to see if mainstream newsrooms cover any of this.

Turn, turn, turn.

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