I just got a rough schedule of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting next week (Nov. 10-13) in Baltimore and depressingly, more than half of it is closed to the public or in executive session or both. Some of it is committee meetings but a lot is not. The only times open to the public will be Monday and Tuesday mornings, during which time the bishops are expected to squeeze a number of agenda items, including a spellbinding debate on abortion and pro-choice Catholic politiicians. Plus let us know what they really think of the election’s results. All reasons to open the curtains a bit more this time around.
Earlier this year, Russell Shaw, who used to head up the press office for the bishops, came out with a book called “Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church.” The bishops were pretty transparent for the first 20 years when their sessions were open, roughly from 1972 to 1992. I first began attending their meetings in 1986 and there were maybe three hours of executive session per meeting back then. Not only that, but on Tuesday nights, the bishops hosted a meet-and-greet for the media just so they could listen to us. That got x’ed out - hmmm - about the time the priestly sex scandals broke, I believe.
Starting in the mid-1990s, the off-the-record portion of the annual USCCB meeting began to grow. Presently, more than half of their 3 1/2-day session is behind closed doors. Let’s say you clock the bishops meeting time at eight hours per day. That comes out to about 28 hours of meeting time. Reporters will only be allowed to listen in on eight.
Wow. The USCCB is really working hard at openness this time. I thought their spring meeting in Orlando was bad, when there was about nine hours of time we could listen in on. Amazingly, the secrecy has gotten even worse. What I am beginning to wonder is if this is a way to discourage out-of-town media from covering their meetings at all, as it is hard to argue for travel funds for such a small portion of the meeting. I know that’s why I did not cover the Orlando gathering in June. Well, so much for all that talk of “transparency” back at that huge Dallas meeting in 2002 right on the heels of the scandals.
According to Mr. Shaw, the decisions on which sessions are open to the public are pretty arbitrary. What is more important, he asks. That bishops multiply their times of in-house talk or be open with those whom they serve? Looks like the openness will have to wait awhile.
— Julia Duin, religion editor, The Washington Times