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Cupich suggested church should do ‘background checks’ on potential U.S. bishops

Cardinal Blase Cupich told a group of Mundelein Seminary students he would support mandating “outside, independent background checks” on clergy being considered for elevation to bishop in the United States, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned. | Sun-Times files

Outside background checks are a common tool for many employers looking to hire and promote — but not when it comes to the appointment of Catholic bishops in the United States, according to Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich.

Now, Cupich is suggesting that such checks should be done in the wake of questions about how disgraced former Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick rose through the ranks despite some in the church hierarchy knowing he was the subject of allegations he sexually preyed on seminarians out East for decades.

During an Aug. 29 gathering at Mundelein Seminary, Cupich told a group of about 200 men studying there to be priests that he would support mandating “outside, independent background checks” on clergy being considered for elevation to bishop in the United States, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

There are “companies that do that,” and “confidences are kept,” Cupich said in response to a question from a seminarian about McCarrick and whether changes are now needed in the bishop selection process, the Sun-Times learned.

Cupich told the gathering that he couldn’t speak for church higher-ups — including Pope Francis — but wouldn’t “be opposed” to the idea “at all.”

Neither Cupich nor his spokeswoman Paula Waters returned calls and emails.

The church’s sex-abuse crisis — beyond McCarrick allegedly abusing seminarians as well as minors, a recent report found decades of abuse by priests and coverups by bishops in Pennsylvania — was the central theme of Cupich’s talk at Mundelein. He spoke for 15 minutes, then took questions from seminarians for 45 minutes, ending the session with his comments on background checks, according to sources.

For weeks, Cupich has faced questions about what he knew about McCarrick following allegations in a letter from a former Vatican official, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, that McCarrick helped Cupich’s career by encouraging Pope Francis to appoint him as head of the church in Chicago.

Cupich has said he doesn’t know whether McCarrick played any role in his 2014 appointment and that he didn’t know about McCarrick’s past.

In the same letter, Vigano wrote that Pope Francis had known for years about allegations of McCarrick’s sexual misconduct, yet allowed him to continue in ministry.

The pope has refused to directly address the claims.

The website for the church’s main voice in America, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, loosely lays out the appointment process for American bishops, noting that it can involve recommendations from clergy and an “investigation” by the pope’s main representative in the United States, the papal nuncio, who “gathers facts and information about potential candidates.”

According to the website, “The process for selecting candidates for the episcopacy normally begins at the diocesan level and works its way through a series of consultations until it reaches Rome,” where the pope makes the “ultimate decision.”

The nuncio’s office didn’t respond to an interview request.

Some of Cupich’s other remarks at the Mundelein Seminary gathering last month were met with surprise, with one seminarian later characterizing them as “tone-deaf.”

Two of the future priests at the seminary told Cupich they were having trouble sleeping because of their anguish over the sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the church in this country and around the world, sources said.

“I feel very much at peace at this moment. I am sleeping OK,” Cupich said later, according to the sources.

They said Cupich also appeared to be minimizing the scandal when he told the group that, while the church’s “agenda” certainly involves protecting kids from harm, “we have a bigger agenda than to be distracted by all of this,” including helping the homeless and sick.