Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, listens to a reporter's question during a news conference on Monday.Patrick Semansky / AP

BALTIMORE—This week’s fall assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was supposed to be the first high-profile occasion for the Church’s top leaders to take steps toward rebuilding public trust after a series of revelations this summer in the ongoing sex-abuse crisis. The assembly was slated to vote this week on a series of reforms to address the crisis, but its plans were quickly upended by the Vatican, throwing the reforms’ future into doubt.

Had they passed, the proposed measures would have created a code of conduct for bishops and a special commission, including six lay members, tasked with working with the apostolic nuncio, the pope’s diplomatic representative to the United States Church, to investigate allegations of bishop misconduct. These would have been small but significant moves toward making bishops more accountable when they fail to report abusive priests, or when they are accused of abuse themselves. But even these limited actions were delayed.

On Monday morning, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the conference’s president, announced that the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops had asked the bishops to delay a vote on the reforms. They would wait until a February meeting between Pope Francis and the heads of bishops’ conferences around the world. The Holy See’s request came as an unwelcome shock to many of the bishops, and may further strain the already tense relationship between American bishops and the papacy.

“There was a lot of disappointment among bishops, a lot of disappointment among priests, a lot of disappointment among the laity,” Paul Coakley, the archbishop of Oklahoma City, told me. During a Monday-afternoon press conference, DiNardo called the Holy See’s letter “quizzical,” and said he and other bishops were frustrated that their hands had been tied by the Vatican’s intervention.

On Tuesday, the bishops advanced the proposed reforms ever so slightly, discussing them and filing amendments, despite not being able to take a vote. At the outset of an open discussion session in the afternoon, DiNardo also announced the formation of a small task force that will  compile a report on the mishandling of abuse allegations, which it will present at the bishops’ next assembly. The task force will include DiNardo and three currently active bishops who have previously served as presidents of the bishops’ conference.

The Vatican’s top-down involvement is far different from the way the Holy See approached an earlier iteration of the sex-abuse crisis in 2002, under Pope John Paul II, when American bishops were essentially left to their own devices after The Boston Globe’s explosive reporting on clergy’s abuse of children. That year, the bishops conference wrote the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, known colloquially as the Dallas Charter, which set forth guidelines for addressing child abuse by members of the clergy. During Tuesday’s discussion on the proposed reforms, DiNardo said the measures would fill gaps in the Dallas Charter relating to bishop oversight and where people should go to report allegations of abuse by bishops or bishops’ failure to address alleged abuse.

To some, the unprecedented level of Vatican engagement in the scandal suggests that the papacy no longer trusts the American bishops to play by their own rules. The latest round of developments in the crisis began when Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, was removed from ministry in June, followed by a Pennsylvania grand-jury report in August detailing a long history of mismanagement and abuse by clergy in the state.

Massimo Faggioli, a historian at Villanova University, believes that the Vatican is putting together its own proposals for bishop oversight, which it could deploy worldwide in February, rather than let bishops of each country develop slightly different solutions. “I expect that [Vatican officials] are preparing guidelines that they will issue as mandatory,” Faggioli said. “At this point, [the February meeting] seems it will not just be a moment for sharing ideas.” Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago told me that there was also some concern from the Vatican that the American bishops’ proposals, as written, were not in accordance with canon law.

Cupich said the Vatican’s actions are a reflection of the fact that, for the first time, it’s treating the crisis as something that the Church must reckon with worldwide. “Pope Francis is making this issue a global issue,” Cupich told me. In the past, he said, the Church has viewed the sex-abuse crisis as a problem confined to “Anglo” and Western churches. But in Pope Francis’s hands, he suggested, the crisis is receiving the attention that will be necessary to effectively address it.

Other bishops, however, felt differently about the Vatican’s motivations.

“I think maybe they just didn’t want the American bishops, the Church in the United States, to get too far out ahead of what will undoubtedly affect all of the churches around the world,” Coakley said. “I’m sure they wouldn’t want to see any contradictions in ways of moving forward. I can only imagine that’s their reason for asking us to slow down. I suspect in some form these are the same measures that will come out of that meeting in February.”  

Even before the Vatican’s intervention, there were bureaucratic and organizational hurdles to the reforms. The measures might not have passed the assembly even if they had come to a vote, Cupich said. “There were a lot of issues,” he told me, noting that the bishops did not receive the proposals from the conference’s administrative committee until the end of October, less than two weeks before the assembly. And when the proposals were brought for discussion on Tuesday, the special commission in particular sparked criticism from Cupich and several other bishops. They questioned whether a commission composed primarily of laypeople would represent the “outsourcing” of bishop oversight, and whether the commission itself would even be useful without buy-in from the Vatican, with which it would need to work closely.

On Monday, after the Vatican’s announcement, Cupich made two requests of the assembly: first, that it take a nonbinding vote on the proposals, and second, that the next meeting of the conference of bishops be pushed up from June to March, right after Pope Francis’s meeting with the presidents of bishops’ conferences worldwide. These steps combined, he said, would allow DiNardo to be “informed about the mind of the [American] bishops” going into the February meeting, and would also reassure Catholic laity that American bishops are committed to addressing the crisis in the interim, even if they can do so only at the level of their individual dioceses. He told me that his suggestions had been met with enthusiastic approval from many bishops he had spoken with, though it’s not yet clear whether either will actually be put into place.

Many bishops echoed Cupich’s push for action in some form. They include Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who resigned from his position as head of the Archdiocese of Washington last month amid criticism of his handling of priest abuse when he previously served as bishop of Pittsburgh. He told the gathered bishops that they “have to take personal responsibility, and we simply need to say, ‘Hey, this is done.’” He added that this is a time for the Church to continue a process of “purification” begun in 2002, one that is “not just personal, but institutional.”

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston was insistent that regardless of the Vatican’s request, the assembly must produce something, so that people don’t think “the Church is incapable of governing itself.” Bishop George Thomas of the diocese of Las Vegas told the assembly that there is “an urgency” for bishops to take steps to address the crisis. “I hope that we will emerge in one voice, an advisory vote perhaps, and emerge with an answer to remove this cancer from the body of Christ,” he said.

For American Catholics, the dysfunction on display at the conference between the Vatican and the United States bishops could feel as if the Church is kicking the can down the road yet again on the issue of abuse. Many Catholics had hoped that this fall assembly would give the bishops an opportunity to take action—and that they’d seize it. “I think that the Church is at a crossroads in how it’s going to deal with an educated laity that has demands to make in terms of justice,” says Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a practicing Catholic and a religious-studies professor at Manhattan University.

And advocates for survivors of sexual abuse worry that the in-house oversight proposed by the Church hierarchy won’t be enough. “These protocols, if they put them in place—are they going to follow them?” asks Becky Ianni, the Washington and Virginia director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “And if they’re not followed, then what?”

On the whole, bishops and observers seemed to have two very different reactions to the Vatican’s request to delay the vote. On the side of some bishops, the Vatican’s move is bad for American Catholicism, because it prevents the bishops from taking any cohesive, large-scale action until the spring. But many liberal Catholics, such the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters, believe this could be good for the Church, and for American Catholics, in the long term, because it shows that the Vatican is taking greater responsibility for sexual abuse than it has in past decades. The Vatican, they believe, has an opportunity to change the culture of the Church—and will keep the bishops more accountable than they could keep themselves. Either way, however, the ball is now unquestionably in the Vatican’s court.

“The Vatican will own the success or the failure of this February meeting,” Faggioli said. “This is something that will make the public position of the bishops … a bit easier. At least right now they can say, ‘We wanted to do something, but we couldn’t.’”

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