At insistence of Vatican, U.S. bishops meeting in Baltimore won't vote on actions to address sex abuse crisis

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opened its conference in Baltimore Monday by saying that at the “insistence” of the Vatican, the American clerics would not vote as planned on steps to address a sex abuse crisis that has reached the highest levels of the church in the United States.

In the weeks leading up to the assembly of leaders of U.S. dioceses, the group’s administrative committee hammered out recommendations for discussion and planned votes on whether to approve them.

But now, said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston, the bishops are to consider their discussions this week as an “initial consultation” — an exchange of ideas to be shared with Pope Francis at a previously planned summit between the Holy Father and church leaders, including DiNardo, on Feb. 8 at the Vatican.

“The Holy See has requested that we refrain from 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,” he said.

The announcement came as a bombshell at the first gathering of the bishops since the church’s widening sex abuse scandal broke in June. The delay appeared to leave many stunned, including DiNardo, who said he was “disappointed” at the change in plans and found it “quizzical.”

At a late-afternoon vigil for abuse survivors, Dave Lorenz, director of the Maryland chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said the decision was “a telling example of the problem” within a church that has long acted far too slowly in dealing with allegations of sex abuse.

“The bishops need to stand up and do the right thing, but they can’t ever seem to do that without first talking to someone else,” Lorenz said. “You don’t need the Vatican’s permission to do the right thing.”

In the weeks leading up to the conference, DiNardo and other bishops said that they considered the scandal an urgent matter — DiNardo called it “a moral catastrophe” — and vowed to take decisive action.

“Brothers, I am sure that you have concerns about this latest development, as I do myself,” DiNardo said Monday.

He said he would present a revised agenda Tuesday morning for the rest of the three-day conference.

The bishops are meeting after a year in which a Pennsylvania grand jury report revealed that hundreds of “predator priests” molested more than 1,000 children over seven decades, a U.S. cardinal resigned over sexual abuse allegations, and the resignation of the archbishop of Washington in connection with the scandal. The cases highlighted questions about the behavior of bishops, how they handle allegations against others and who’s overseeing the bishops’ conduct.

DiNardo’s announcement drew an immediate response from one of his brother bishops — and blowback from observers already inclined to question whether the bishops are truly prepared to address the sprawling crisis, which has spread to a number of other nations, including Australia, Chile, France and Ireland.

Cardinal Blaise Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, said that “given the urgency of the situation,” the bishops should at least pass a resolution on the action items so that DiNardo can be clear with Francis in February exactly where the U.S. bishops are on the scandal and what remedies they recommend. Cupich also proposed that the bishops meet again in March so they won’t have to wait until their next scheduled assembly, which is set for June in Santa Barbara, Calif. DiNardo said he would consider including Cupich’s request for a special meeting as part of the revised agenda.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and religion writer who has covered the church for years, said the change of plans did little to help the bishops persuade the public they were prepared to act decisively.

“What a disaster,” he said. “What terrible public relations for the pope. Cupich tried to save things by suggesting the bishops repackage [the action items] as recommendations, but the damage is already done.”

Early in the afternoon, Peter Isley of the group Ending Church Abuse stood on a sidewalk in front of the meeting site at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront and cast the decision as yet another example of church leaders’ refusal to show they take sex abuse as seriously as they should.

“There’s no need to wait. Why do they need permission to vote?” he asked. “Why can’t they just vote as they’d planned and let their vote be part of the conversation in February?”

Isley, a self-described survivor of abuse by a Wisconsin priest, told reporters that a third of the bishops gathered inside are known to have deliberately covered up instances of sex abuse. The comment was a reference to a joint report by The Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Inquirer this month that found that more than 130 U.S. bishops — nearly a third of those still living — have been accused during their careers of “failing to adequately respond to sexual misconduct in their dioceses.” Reporters on the story examined court records, media reports and interviews with church officials, victims and others.

Isley also mentioned reports that have emerged over the past several weeks that DiNardo himself was aware of sex abuse by priests in Iowa and Texas and returned them to their duties. Two abuse victims in Texas told The Associated Press that DiNardo failed to take action to stop a priest who had abused them. The priest was arrested in September.

“This shows that these bishops are unwilling to offer victims and others even the small measure of hope that voting on the items would have provided,” Isley said.

Most of the bishops were unavailable Monday for comment, conference organizers said, because they were at prayer, but DiNardo fielded questions at an afternoon news conference. He acknowledged that the change in plans might displease many Catholics — “I’m sure there will be some who are quite angry,” he said — but said it in no way represented “a change in direction for the Catholic bishops of the United States.”

He said Pope Francis had told him in September that he supported the broad outlines of the bishops’ plans for the assembly, and that the directive came from the Holy See at large, not Francis personally.

The church may have decided “it has to handle [the crisis] universally” — that is, to discuss it with leaders from various nations, not just the United States — but “there’s no slowdown in the U.S.”

By late afternoon, dozens of protesters had gathered on a plaza overlooking the Inner Harbor beside the hotel, many representing international or national groups and carrying signs and the photographs of victims.

Patty Fortney-Julius of Harrisburg, Pa., held a poster depicting five children along with the words, “The Fortney family — 5 touched and all affected! Ten brutal years of clergy sexual abuse covered up!” A girl in one of the photos was Fortney-Julius at 13; the rest were her siblings. All, she said, were abused by a priest assigned to their parish after being accused of sexual misconduct.

As darkness fell, victims’ advocates addressed a crowd of about 50 people. Ryan Sattler, a survivor and member of the Maryland chapter of Catholics for Action, posed a series of questions, to applause.

“We are angry. We are sad. We are confused. We feel betrayed. We don’t understand how such things can happen,” he said. “How can our church cover up these sins for all these years? Why does it take a grand jury report in Pennsylvania to finally tell us the truth about what has been going on in our church?”

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