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U.S. bishops delay action on sex abuse at Vatican request

The fate of new accountability measures is not clear.

Galveston-Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo speaks during a press conference at the annual U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting on November 12, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. CREDIT: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Galveston-Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo speaks during a press conference at the annual U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting on November 12, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. CREDIT: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Vatican has delayed a vote by U.S. Catholic bishops this week that would have held church leaders accountable for clergy sex abuse.

At a meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, on Monday, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the heads of all 196 U.S. dioceses and archdioceses that Pope Francis wanted them to hold off on a vote until after a meeting of worldwide church leaders in Rome in February.

The bishops had planned to vote Wednesday on a code of conduct for bishops and a lay commission to investigate violations.

“At the insistence of the Holy See, we will not be voting on the two action items,” DiNardo, who is archbishop of Galveston-Houston, in Texas, told his fellow bishops, according to The Washington Post.

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Advocates for survivors of clergy sexual abuse, who have long accused the church of being unwilling to hold senior leaders accountable, were quick to criticize the move.

“We’re dealing with the crisis, right here, right now,” Becky Ianni, D.C. regional head of the victims’ group SNAP, told The Washington Post. “Yes, it’s a global problem, and they need to discuss it there [in Rome], but the U.S. needs to come up with something right now.”

The Vatican’s motives aren’t clear. It may want to wait on a global policy instead of tackling the issue county-by-county, but it may also be nervous about any proposal to have lay people investigate the conduct of bishops.

Comments by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Pope Francis’ ambassador to the United States, on Monday suggest it could be the latter.

“There may be a temptation on the part of some to relinquish responsibility for reform to others from ourselves, as if we were no longer capable of reforming or trusting ourselves,” Pierre told the bishops gathered in Baltimore after DiNardo’s announcement, according to The Post. “Assistance is both welcome and necessary, and surely collaboration with the laity is essential. However, the responsibility as bishops of this Catholic Church is ours.”

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The Catholic church in the United States is facing perhaps the most serious sex abuse scandal in its history. A scathing report by a Pennsylvania grand jury in August implicated some 300 priests in abusing over 1,000 children. Since then, Cardinal Donald Wuerl has resigned as archbishop of Washington, D.C., over his handling of sexual abuse cases when he was bishop of Pittsburgh.

The month before the Pennsylvania report came out, The New York Times revealed a long history of sexual abuse by D.C.’s retired archbishop, Theodore McCarrick, that eventually forced him to resign from the College of Cardinals, the church’s highest governing body.

A dozen states have launched civil and criminal investigations into sex abuse by Catholic clergy since then, and some expect the Department of Justice to follow suit.

It’s not clear how the American bishops will proceed on Wednesday after the news from Rome. Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago proposed Monday that the bishops take a non-binding vote then revisit the issue with a binding vote in March.

What is clear is the sense, in America if not in Rome, that something has to give.

“Brother bishops, to exempt ourselves from this high standard of accountability is unacceptable and cannot stand,” DiNardo told his fellow bishops on Monday after Pierre spoke. “Whether we will be regarded as guardians of the abused or the abuser will be determined by our actions.”