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.
Read: The Catholic sex-abuse scandal takes down a cardinal
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.”