U.S. Catholic bishops to return to Baltimore after fall conference that failed to take action on abuse crisis

The nation’s conference of Catholic bishops announced Wednesday that it will return to Baltimore in June for an assembly as leaders grapple with a sex abuse crisis that has engulfed the church in the United States.

The move represents a change in plans for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was to have held its week-long summer gathering next year in Santa Barbara, Calif.

The bishops’ fall meeting — held for years in Baltimore — traditionally centers on business and agenda-setting for the approximately 300 leaders of the nation’s nearly 200 dioceses. The June assembly, which is held in different locations each year, typically includes elements of a retreat.

Speaking between sessions Wednesday on the final day of the 2018 meeting at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori said that with the clergy abuse crisis dominating church affairs, conference leaders decided to treat the June assembly as a business gathering as well, and Baltimore — site of the nation’s oldest diocese — has proved an excellent site for such meetings.

Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, general secretary of the conference, told the bishops at the end of the day that the meeting will be June 11-19.

The announcement came at the conclusion of what had been expected to be the most consequential gathering of American Catholic leaders since 2002, when the bishops created a charter outlining measures to protect children from clergy sex abuse.

The bishops arrived in Baltimore this week 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, and a U.S. cardinal resigned over sexual abuse allegations.

The bishops planned to vote on whether to enact proposals to further crack down on such abuse, including measures to address cases involving bishops themselves.

But the Vatican deflated many of the most positive expectations on Monday. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the conference, opened the session by announcing that the Holy See had vetoed the bishops’ plans to vote on measures to address the crisis.

The change in plans provoked sharp criticism and angered protesters who were already skeptical of the bishops’ commitment to taking concrete steps, and it meant the clerics only discussed and refined the proposals, rather than acting on them. The proposals included creating a system for the faithful to report abuse by bishops and setting up a special commission to assess such complaints.

Peter Isely, a survivor of clergy sex abuse and spokesperson for Ending Clergy Abuse, assailed the bishops for what he called their “inaction” this week and for considering proposals he called inadequate.

“Both the reporting system and the special commission described in yesterday’s meeting are accountable to no one but the Vatican,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “The results of the investigations will not be delivered to U.S. law enforcement or made available to the public, but rather only to the Vatican embassy, a foreign government, under which the U.S. has no jurisdiction.”

Isely was one of several dozen protesters who rallied in front of the hotel this week. Several hundred more held a prayer rally Tuesday at a nearby pavilion.

DiNardo said during his final remarks that he considered the assembly “productive” and that it had given him a number of ideas to present in February in Rome to Pope Francis at a summit of heads of Catholic leadership groups on the sex abuse crisis.

Nearly two dozen U.S. bishops spoke about the issue during a free-wheeling conversation that spanned Tuesday and Wednesday.

Several described the ferocity of the blowback they’d received from worshipers in their dioceses over the Holy See’s intervention in the conference, and urged their brother bishops to remember the urgency of the crisis.

One theme that emerged repeatedly: Bishops from across America said the faithful remain dissatisfied, angry and confused over a scandal surrounding Theodore McCarrick, the influential former archbishop of Washington, who in June became the first man to resign from the College of Cardinals over sex abuse allegations.

McCarrick is accused of molesting altar boys decades earlier and, more recently, sexually harassing adult seminarians. Widespread reports have emerged that some fellow bishops knew of his misconduct as he ascended to the highest ranks of the church.

Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth said Wednesday that the bishops’ failure to directly address the McCarrick scandal left their seriousness open to question.

He described the “outrage that we’ve experienced … outrage promoted by the injuries that our people have experienced at the hands of predators, outrage over the treatment of our seminarians and our priests who were entrusted in the care of former Cardinal McCarrick. … The Holy See has removed him from the College of Cardinals and does have a juridically based process in place to address him. This body has yet to do so.”

At least six bishops urged action on McCarrick.

Later in the day, though, the group voted down a resolution that would have called on the Vatican to release all records related to its investigation of the disgraced prelate. Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt., said the pope already had agreed to release the records, so the resolution was unnecessary.

Other bishops debated whether the proposals under discussion ceded too much authority to outside entities. As to recommendations that every diocese post the names of all “credibly accused” clerics, several asked for clarity on the definition of “credible.”

Many called for joint statements, strong resolutions and clarity of action that never fully came.

“The meeting in February [in Rome] might result in months of study and make it impossible for this body to talk [about the crisis] in March or even maybe in June,” Bishop Peter Christensen of Boise, Idaho, said Wednesday. “That makes it all the more important for us to vote today as though we were voting on a policy. We need something as close as possible to a binding protocol now.”

Lori said the central order of business at the June meeting would “almost certainly” be the raging sex abuse crisis, the subject that has consumed this week’s meeting and continues to rattle the church worldwide.

“I’m afraid that issue is going to be with us for a long, long time,” Lori said.

Earlier in the day, Jeff Anderson, an attorney based in St. Paul, Minn., announced his firm filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday against the bishops’ conference in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of six victims of priest sexual abuse and others “similarly situated.”

Both the conference and the Holy See are defendants in the lawsuit, which alleges they protected clergy instead of children. The suit mentioned the Baltimore meeting and the news that the Vatican had ordered attendees not to act on proposed reforms, “thereby kicking the can down the road again.”

A conference spokesman, James Rogers, declined to respond, saying “we don’t comment on pending litigation.”

DiNardo said that while he’d started the three-day meeting in disappointment, he ended it in hope.

“We leave this place determined, resolved to move forward in concert with the church around the world,” DiNardo said. “We will make the global church stronger.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.

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