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Though retired, Bishop Perry will continue to lead USCCB’s anti-racism committee

Despite his Sept. 25 retirement as a Chicago auxiliary, Bishop Joseph N. Perry may continue to serve as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, completing the term he began in May.

The bishops voted Nov. 14 during their fall plenary assembly in Baltimore to approve a one-time suspension of their handbook rules prohibiting a retired bishop from serving as a committee’s chairman.

The bishops also voted to reauthorize the ad hoc anti-racism committee for two more years, with a mandate of determining whether it should become a permanent part of the conference structure.

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, USCCB secretary and chairman of its Committee on Priorities and Plans, presented the items for vote. He said that Bishop Perry will serve as the chairman until the end of his term, or until the ad hoc committee is given a permanent place within the conference structure, whichever comes first.

Before the bishops voted, Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond, Virginia, spoke in support of the ad hoc committee’s work, noting that his diocese finds its materials helpful and that they were recently used during a day of renewal and healing organized by its Office of Black Catholics.

“The matter (racism) is still very much present in many places, in terms of reflection on that, and help in terms of the Church’s own response, so I’m very appreciative of the committee’s own work,” Bishop Knestout said.

The bishops voted 230-11, with one abstention, to reauthorize the ad hoc committee, and 217-19, with six abstentions, to allow Bishop Perry to continue as its chairman for two years.

Bishop Perry, who in April turned 75, the age at which bishops are mandated to submit their resignation to the pope, was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 1975. In 1998 he was appointed and ordained an auxiliary bishop of Chicago. There he serves as the diocesan postulator of the cause for canonization of Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), the first American Catholic priest publicly known to be Black, who was declared venerable in 2019.

Under the USCCB’s committee handbook rules, retired bishops do not vote but may speak on matters under consideration by the conference.

In a May interview with OSV News, Bishop Perry commended efforts underway across the Catholic Church in the United States to better understand the Church’s role in racist structures, especially slavery and American Indian boarding schools. The bishop, who is African American, said that he experienced racism as a child growing up in 1950s Chicago, where he watched “white flight” from his neighborhood, school and Church.

While serving as USCCB president, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston created the committee in 2017 to address the sin of racism. He appointed Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, to serve as the committee’s first chairman. Bishop Murray, a Jesuit, was succeeded in 2018 by Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre, who was then the bishop of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana. Following his appointment to the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, in March 2022, Archbishop Fabre asked that a new chair be named, according to the USCCB.

According to the USCCB, the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism aims “to teach about and to witness to the intrinsic dignity of the human person as an antidote to the grave sin of racism.” In 2018, the conference published the pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love: A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” which was developed by its Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church.

In the letter, the bishops charged the then fledgling Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism to implement the letter’s vision and “develop ways to help facilitate an ongoing national dialogue, bringing successful models and stories of hope to people at all levels.”

It noted that upon the letter’s release, “the committee has already begun its work – conducting listening sessions; providing resources about racism; giving tools to dioceses, eparchies, and parishes to begin important conversations about this evil; and exploring needed policy initiatives.”

In 2020, the committee adapted the message of “Open Wide Our Hearts” into the children’s book “Everyone Belongs,” which it describes as “a book about recognizing the value of our differences, respecting each other, and forgiveness.” It has produced dozens of other resources related to the pastoral letter.

The Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism is one of 18 USCCB committees. It currently is the conference’s only ad hoc committee. In addition to Bishop Perry, its members include Archbishop Fabre, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston; Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco; Archbishop Borys A. Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia; Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore; Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida; Auxiliary Bishop Gerard W. Battersby of Detroit; and Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda of Detroit.

Its bishop consultants include Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles; Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Washington; Cardinal Joseph W.Tobin of Newark; Auxiliary Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville of Washington; Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas; retired Bishop Martin D. Holley of Memphis, Tennessee; retired Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida; Bishop David P. Talley of Memphis; and Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, New Mexico.

In his Nov. 14 remarks, Archbishop Coakley praised the ad hoc committee’s staff members and their work in creating ecumenical and interreligious collaborations and coalitions to fight racism.

“As a part of the Justice, Peace and Human Development department at the conference, the ad hoc committee continues to engage policy issues and consults on legislation that impacts communities of color, as well as addressing and advising dozens of dioceses, Catholic institutions of higher education and ministry organizations,” he said.

He noted that the committee is financially supported by the Knights of Columbus and the Black and Indian Missions Office.