In an abrupt change of plans, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opened the group’s national meeting Monday by announcing it will delay for at least several months any votes on proposed new steps to address the clergy sex abuse crisis that is rocking the church.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, of Galveston-Houston, said the delay was requested by the Vatican, which asked that the U.S. bishops wait until after a Vatican-convened global meeting on sex abuse in February.
DiNardo expressed disappointment but told the U.S. bishops, “I remain hopeful that this additional consultation will ultimately improve our response to the crisis we face.”
The bishops are meeting through Wednesday in Baltimore and had been expected to consider several steps to combat abuse, including a new code of conduct for themselves and the creation of a special commission to review complaints against the bishops.
At their meeting, which continues through Wednesday, the bishops may proceed with discussions of these proposals, which were drafted in September by the bishops’ Administrative Committee. But there will be no immediate vote.
Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, of Chicago, suggested that the bishops hold a special assembly in March to vote on the measures after considering the results of the global meeting in February.
Abuse scandals have roiled the Roman Catholic Church worldwide for decades, but there have been major developments this year in the U.S.
In July, Pope Francis removed U.S. church leader Theodore McCarrick as a cardinal after church investigators said an allegation that he groped a teenage altar boy in the 1970s was credible. Subsequently, several former seminarians and priests reported that they too had been abused or harassed by McCarrick as adults, triggering debate over who might have known and covered up McCarrick’s misconduct.
In August, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania detailed decades of abuse and cover-up in six dioceses, alleging that more than 1,000 children had been abused over the years by about 300 priests. Since then, a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia has begun working on a federal criminal case centered on child exploitation, and attorneys general in several other states have launched investigations.
DiNardo, in his address opening the bishops’ assembly, told survivors of clergy abuse that he was “deeply sorry.”
The church, he said, should not revictimize survivors “by demanding they heal on our timeline.”
Announcement of a delay in the voting drew skeptical reactions.
“We had this agenda, we were moving forward on these documents, this was our goal,” said Bishop Christopher Coyne, of the Vermont diocese of Burlington, and the communications chair for the three-day conference. “And now … it will look like we don’t have to come up with much.”
Coyne said he believed there were “no machinations” leading to the delay, but he had concerns about how it would be perceived outside the assembly hall.
“The Vatican just made a big mistake in asking US bishops to delay their votes on clergy abuse protocols,” tweeted John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a Washington-based clergy network. “The optics are terrible, and it sends a message, intended or not, that Rome doesn’t recognize the urgency of the moment.”