The Roman Catholic Church in the United States is reeling after the Vatican last week abruptly directed its bishops to postpone plans to increase accountability in the clergy sex abuse crisis. A chorus of Catholic critics is calling the move another cover-up of abuse by the Catholic hierarchy.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was set to vote on two measures—one on a code of conduct for bishops and another on a lay-led special commission to review complaints against them—during last week’s annual assembly in Baltimore. But during the meeting’s opening few minutes, the conference president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, told the bishops he had received an order from the Vatican the night before to suspend the vote.
“The Holy See has asked that we delay voting on these so that our deliberations can inform and be informed by the global meeting of the conference presidents that the Holy Father has called for February 2019,” DiNardo told the gathering. Earlier this year, Pope Francis summoned the presidents of all the bishops’ conferences around the world to the upcoming summit on sex abuse.
Accusations of abuse and cover-up have rocked the U.S. Catholic Church all year long. In July, Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., over credible allegations he groped a teenage boy in the 1970s. Soon after the pope ordered McCarrick to “a life of prayer and penance,” several former seminarians and priests said McCarrick had abused or molested them.
In August, a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report from six dioceses showing 300 “predator priests” raped and molested more than 1,000 children over seven decades. The report also revealed a coordinated cover-up of the abuse by church officials, who repeatedly reassigned accused priests to new parishes. In response, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in the state, the first such probe ever launched.
“We are not ourselves happy about this,” DiNardo told reporters about the delayed vote. “We are working very hard to move to action, and we’ll do it. … I think people in the church have a right to be skeptical. I think they also have a right to be hopeful.”
But American Catholics seem more fed up than hopeful.
“Your response to this crisis has been incomplete,” Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the national review board that monitors the church’s efforts to prevent clergy sex abuse, told the gathered bishops.
Some bishops agreed and resented the Vatican’s interference. “We are not branch managers of the Vatican,” said Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill. “Our people are crying out for some action.”
Vatican supporters say the delay will ensure the U.S. bishops avoid canonical mistakes. But George Weigel, a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, didn’t accept that reasoning. He wrote for First Things that on a recent five-week trip to Rome he found “an anti-American atmosphere worse than anything I’d experienced in 30 years of work in and around the Vatican.”
Monsignor Charles Pope, a prominent priest of the archdiocese of Washington, D.C., underscored the U.S.-Vatican divide in an editorial for the National Catholic Register, saying that U.S. Catholic leaders must demand action from a pope who has surrounded himself with men too close to the scandal.
“[Pope Francis’] credibility as a reformer who will root out scandal and insist upon accountability is nearly nonexistent,” wrote the monsignor. “[T]he scandal in the United States has landed firmly on his desk as a result of his own behavior. He has said to American Catholics and to our bishops, in effect, ‘Let me and the Holy See handle this.’”
It is unclear how this crisis, and repeated delayed action, will affect the U.S. Catholic Church, which has seen a steady rise in members—from 47.9 million in 1970 to 68.5 million last year, despite major abuse revelations in the 2000s. But Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found the majority of U.S. Catholics now attend church only a few times a year.
“When the sex abuse scandals broke in 2001 it was possible to imagine that they were just about sex abuse—that the church could simply stop treating predatory priests with therapy, start defrocking them, and move forward chastened and renewed,” wrote New York Times columnist and practicing Roman Catholic Ross Douthat. But 17 years later, U.S. bishops and Pope Francis still haven’t made serious reforms, he said, adding, “Wavering Catholics … stayed with a compromised leadership in 2001 but won’t stay with a hierarchy that seems bankrupt in 2018.”