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What does the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops do? The USCCB is an organization of the active Roman Catholic bishops in the United States — about 275 of them — working together in carrying out their pastoral ministry. The bulk of the work of the church happens within the local jurisdiction of each bishop, which is called a diocese. The conference exists to unify, coordinate, and promote that diocesan-level work, not to duplicate or supervise it. I’ve heard the conference compared to a trade association of bishops. That’s not really accurate, but it’s closer to the mark than the “mini-Vatican” that some imagine it to be. That’s actually a common misunderstanding of Catholic hierarchy. We’re a lot flatter than many assume. The diocesan bishop makes the call within his jurisdiction, and he is largely subject only to the Holy See in Rome. The chain of authority is basically the pastor of a parish, then the bishop, and then the Holy See. It’s a very wide, very flat pyramid. There are other forms of authority in the church, but they are generally much softer, based more on consultation and persuasion. So the work of the conference is a matter of facilitating bishops’ cooperation with each other as they carry out their ministry, working together as a sign of unity. The bishops meet as an entire conference twice a year, and they have various standing committees, subcommittees, and other groups that operate year-round. The conference has a staff of more than 300, mostly laypeople, who work to organize those annual meetings and to staff those ongoing committees continually. The work of the conference falls into three broad categories. The first is the pastoral, or what you might call “churchy” things, like liturgy, catechesis, evangelization, and canonical issues. In recent years, we’ve added an office dedicated to child and youth protection. The second piece is advocacy and policy-related work. There are many committees that exist to bring church teaching to bear on certain priority issues for Catholics, including abortion, marriage, poverty, immigration, education, and international affairs. We also have three or four lobbyists in-house who present the views of the bishops to Congress. The distinction between the pastoral and policy stuff is a fluid one, since all of the policy stuff arises out of theological commitments and concerns. The third part is administration — accounting, finance, facilities, human resources, planning, and the like. Sometimes the distinction between administrative and pastoral things is also blurry, because the conference is structured and staffed to reflect and serve religious principles. So, for example, the conference administers some special collections for the retirement of elderly religious, for the Holy Land, for the needs of the church in places like Latin America and Eastern Europe.
Why is immigration an important policy concern? If you look at the history of the United States, the Catholic Church has been a church of immigrants, and the original organization that eventually became the conference was formed in part to serve the special needs of that immigrant population. But the concern for migrants isn’t just an accident of history. The church worldwide is deeply concerned about the plight of migrants worldwide. There is a principled commitment to welcome the stranger, and to help the poor and vulnerable, and migrants and refugees are often in desperate straits. On top of this, many migrants are Catholic, but once again, the church is concerned about non-Catholic migrants as well. So the conference is both a policy advocate and a service provider on this issue, acting through its office of migration and refugee services.
How large is your legal department? We have five other attorneys, in addition to me, as well as three non-legal staff. Each attorney covers a range of issues, but each has a special focus: immigration; taxation and nonprofits; intellectual property and communications; labor and employment; and litigation. I’ve got a finger in every pie, but I also focus on religious freedom issues. We attend to the contract, employment, and other internal legal issues that you might expect to arise in any organization the size of the conference, except that there’s a religious freedom overlay throughout. We also typically defend ourselves in litigation when we’ve been sued. Our office also runs the National Diocesan Attorneys Association, helping to coordinate the activities of the attorneys who serve the dioceses. There are over 170 dioceses in the U.S., and each has one or more diocesan attorneys appointed by the bishop. Just as the diocese handles the bulk of the work of the church, the diocesan attorneys handle the bulk of legal work of the church. As with the conference as a whole, our office acts in a consultative, supportive, coordinating, advising role. We administer the activities of the association, hold a big CLE meeting every year, and participate in regional meetings throughout the year. We have a similar support role in relation to the smaller Catholic conferences that exist at the state and regional level. OGC also articulates a Catholic vision of the law in the broader legal community, mostly through amicus briefs in civil courts, often in coalition with other religious groups, but also through legal scholarship. We file almost exclusively in the U.S. Supreme Court, but sometimes also in lower appellate courts. The range of issues more or less tracks the policy areas, emphasizing foundational issues such as the defense of human life and religious freedom. The touchstone principle throughout is the inherent dignity of the human person.
What would you say are your biggest legal challenges? We have a few. First, the conference has undergone a downsizing over the last couple of years. The conference is funded in part by what’s sometimes colloquially called “the tax” — it’s actually a voluntary assessment that the bishops impose on themselves to support the conference. A few years ago, the bishops decided not to provide the ordinary annual increase in the tax, and instead to downsize and reorganize the conference. One of the principal drivers of that decision was the severe pinch to the pocketbook that many bishops are feeling as a result of sexual abuse litigation and settlements. As you might imagine, the downsizing has generated some legal issues, and I’ve been presiding over the tail end of it. We’ve offered early retirement packages, and where job descriptions were changed substantially, incumbents were invited to reapply for jobs similar to their old ones. It’s been a very gradual, phased process, but some significant changes kick in with the new year. Another major challenge has been the lingering legal fallout from the sexual abuse crisis. The conference hasn’t had sexual abuse problems involving its own employees, but every once in a while, a sexual abuse plaintiff decides to sue every Catholic institution it can imagine, and so names the conference as part of that list. These are meritless and never get past the motion to dismiss stage, but unfortunately that hasn’t stopped plaintiffs from filing them. More importantly in this area, the conference has been in the forefront of proposing diocesan systems and structures designed to minimize the incidence of sexual abuse in the future, and to optimize the church’s response when it does happen. As Catholics, we recognize that we live in a broken world. You can’t achieve 100 percent prevention, especially when you’re dealing with crime like sex abuse, which happens out of sight. So in addition to doing the best we can to create a safe environment for children in the care of the church, we also make provision for a healing response when prevention fails. So in 2002, the conference issued the charter [ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People] and the norms [ Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons], both of which were updated and reissued in 2005. These certainly weren’t the first efforts in the church to address the problem of sexual abuse, but they were the ones that have made the church a national leader in child and youth protection. These structures are vigorous. On the prevention side, each diocese in the United States has a safe environment program and a safe environment coordinator to implement it, including background checks on all clergy and others who have unsupervised contact with children. On the remedial side, each diocese must have a victim assistance coordinator to reach out to those who have been abused, as well as a lay review board to help assess particular claims of abuse and the procedures for handling them. The bishops have committed to full and prompt cooperation with civil authorities, and to removing clergy from ministry permanently after a single instance of sexual abuse — no reassignments, no matter how much therapy the offender may get. And because the norms are specifically approved by the Vatican — not just recommendations by the conference — they are binding church law. The conference also conducts audits to ensure compliance. And the last big challenge is the papal visit, which is coming up this April. There are all kinds of legal issues arising from it. Because security is a principal concern, the Secret Service manages most of what happens, so we interface with them. Then there are the contractual issues associated with licensing the official logo. We want to maintain some measure of control over how the official logo is used, lest it end up on some tacky or otherwise undesirable tchotchke. We dread the return of pope “soap on a rope.” You can also imagine the wide range of communications issues that might arise, with so much broadcast and other media involved.
What would you say are the best parts of the job? It’s great to participate in the work of the church so directly. As a layperson, it’s an honor to be able to serve the bishops and apply the skills I’ve acquired as a lawyer to that purpose. I like being an adviser and offering both a legal and prudential aspect.
What’s your background? I’ve been at the conference for all of four months. Before that, I did litigation for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a small nonprofit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the freedom of expression of all religions. It’s mainly a litigation shop, but it also does media work in support of its cases and encourages its lawyers to do legal scholarship based on what they’ve learned in practice. Becket also does some international work along the same lines. I was there seven years. It was great fun, and it gave me depth in First Amendment law. Before that, I was a litigator at Covington & Burling for about three and a half years.
Where would we find you out of the office? At home. I grew up in Brooklyn, and we had an itty-bitty patch of grass that you couldn’t really call a yard. But now my wife and I have a small house in Arlington with a real backyard, so I’ve been bitten by the gardening bug. It’s comical for a citified guy like me: I’m weeding beds, mowing the lawn, trimming the shrubs, planting flowers. Gardening is therapeutic and a good metaphor for many things in life. We have a dog now, too, which completes the urban-to-suburban transformation.
Read any good books lately? Well, I read for a living, and so I don’t do much reading recreationally. But my wife and I listen to books on tape during long holiday drives. We just listened to I Am America (And So Can You), by Stephen Colbert, over Thanksgiving. We groove on the irony.

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