Catholic bishops from the United States gathered in Baltimore this week for their annual fall meeting had planned to discuss and vote on new protocols aimed at holding bishops accountable for sexual abuse. But in a surprise announcement at the start of the meeting, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo told bishops that the Vatican has asked them to delay the vote until after a February meeting in Rome with the heads of bishops conferences from around the world to discuss sexual abuse.
“Although I am disappointed that we will not be taking these actions tomorrow,” said Cardinal DiNardo, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “I remain hopeful this additional consultation will ultimately improve our response to the crisis we face.”
Bishops had been scheduled to vote on three “action items” related to abuse: approving new “Standards of Episcopal Conduct” for bishops, the creation of a new commission to handle allegations of abuse against bishops, and new protocols for bishops who are removed or who resign from office due to sexual misconduct with adults or minors.
In response to the news that the Vatican had asked bishops to delay the vote, Cardinal Blase Cupich took the floor to urge bishops to continue discussing the proposals and to vote on them as resolutions, in order to convey to the Vatican that “there’s an urgency here.”
“It is clear that the Holy See is taking seriously the abuse crisis in the church, seeing it as a watershed moment in putting so much emphasis on the February meeting.”
“It is clear that the Holy See is taking seriously the abuse crisis in the church, seeing it as a watershed moment, not just for the church in this country, but around the world, in putting so much emphasis on the February meeting,” the Chicago archbishop and papal adviser said.
But he added that U.S. bishops must “take up this issue for the good of the church in this country without delay.” He proposed that U.S. bishops tweak the protocols during this meeting and then meet again during a special session in March to discuss the February meeting and to vote to adopt the proposed protocols.
At a press conference, Cardinal DiNardo said the letter from Rome had come from the Congregation for Bishops and he said he was unaware if Pope Francis was involved in the request, adding that bishops are “disappointed” by the development.
“It’s quizzical why it would happen,” he said, though he conceded that the documents bishops were set to debate were not finalized until Oct. 30 and that there may be issues concerning canon law that need to be addressed before the Vatican would accept any new protocols concerning bishops. The cardinal said bishops would still review the proposals and continue forward, without a vote, calling the change a “bump in the road.”
Security inside the Marriott where bishops are gathered is tight, and outside a group of protesters from Bishop Accountability held a press conference during which they criticized what they called a “pre-emptive” strike against reform by the Vatican, called on all U.S. bishops to submit their resignations to the pope, and urged dioceses to publish full lists of credibly accused priests.
“The future and health of Catholicism in the United States is at stake here,” said Terry McKiernan of Bishop Accountability, who added that U.S. Catholics “look at the bishops and do not trust them anymore.”
The Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests was likewise upset by the delay, saying in a statement that while they found the proposals to be “half measures,” they were nonetheless “still steps forward.”
“We hope that this means that, at the meeting between the pope and presidents of bishops’ conferences in February, concrete steps will be taken to ensure accountability for bishops who cover-up abuse,” the statement continued.
The pope’s ambassador to the United States told bishops that working with lay people in ushering in reforms is “critical” and “essential.”
But Archbishop Christophe Pierre said bishops have a responsibility to combat the problems themselves.
“However, the responsibility, as bishops of this Catholic Church, is ours—to live with, to suffer with, and to exercise properly,” he said. “The People of God have rightly challenged us to be trustworthy.”
He said “bishops must not be afraid to get our hands dirty in doing that work in the vineyard of the Lord” and he thanked the media for bringing “attention to precisely what we did not attend to ourselves.”
With sex abuse crises roiling dioceses in the United States, Europe and South America, Pope Francis announced in September that he would host a meeting at the Vatican in February with the heads of bishops conferences from around the world to discuss the church’s response.
Cardinal Cupich said that U.S. bishops may benefit from that meeting but he added, “we need to act soon, without delay.”
The issue of sexual abuse by clergy has been back in the news since earlier this year, when former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was removed from public ministry because an allegation that he sexually abused a minor decades ago was deemed credible by a review board. Then, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania listed allegations of sexual abuse against children by priests that spanned decades, which led to the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, whose actions as the bishop of Pittsburgh to hold accused priests accountable were criticized as insufficient.
And in Buffalo, Bishop Richard Malone is facing calls to resign from lay people and even some of his priests over allegations that he did not take seriously allegations of sexual misconduct by priests. Bishop Malone admitted he made mistakes but said as recently as last week that he would not step down. Law enforcement officials in Washington and in at least a dozen states are looking into how dioceses handled allegations of abuse.
In his presidential address to the bishops, Cardinal DiNardo said responding to the sexual abuse crisis “will require all our spiritual and physical resources,” and he said the church must take seriously the challenge to enact “changes that the people of God are rightfully demanding.”
“We must expand our understanding of protection and vigilance,” he said.
This story has been updated.