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US bishops had a plan to combat clerical sex abuse. The Vatican just hit pause.

The Vatican asked the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to delay votes on proposals to fight child abuse.

Cardinals Briefing On The General Congregations
USCCB president Daniel DiNardo in 2013.
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

The Vatican has angered many Catholics by urging American bishops to delay voting on two proposals relating to the child sex abuse crisis scheduled for discussion at their annual meeting this week.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), announced Monday morning during the organization’s annual fall assembly in Baltimore that the Vatican had asked them to delay votes on two scheduled proposals involving the USCCB’s fight against clerical child sex abuse until after a global conference on the subject scheduled to take place at the Vatican in February.

One proposal involved codifying standards of clerical conduct, while the other would have called for the formation of a special commission to review complaints of breaches of those standards against bishops, who have historically occupied a more protected position within the Vatican hierarchy than ordinary priests. The proposals were widely expected to pass.

DiNardo expressed disappointment at the Vatican’s decision but told attendees, “I remain hopeful that this additional consultation will ultimately improve our response to the crisis we face.”

The move seems to be a striking — and unwelcome — return to form for a Vatican that critics have long accused of sweeping the clerical sex abuse crisis under the rug.

Earlier this year, the Catholic clerical sex abuse crisis reached a new nadir when a Pennsylvania grand jury report alleged that at least 300 priests had molested more than 1,000 minors in that state over the past several decades, prompting a wave of new allegations (and new investigations) across the country.

Those revelations, in turn, came on the heels of the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, DC, over allegations that he had sexually abused junior seminarians under his authority, as well as at least two minors, over a period of decades. A former Vatican official, Carlo Maria Viganò, later accused Francis of knowing about — and refusing to take action over — McCarrick’s offenses against adults, although not minors. McCarrick’s successor in DC, Donald Wuerl, resigned last month over allegations that he’d been aware of abuse both by McCarrick and in Pennsylvania more widely, where he had previously served as bishop of Pittsburgh.

The delay on the vote is likely to infuriate American Catholics

Pope Francis’s handling of the crisis has been widely criticized, with just 53 percent of American Catholics approving of his papacy as of October. Although he issued a 2,000-word apology for the church’s legacy of handling the sex abuse crisis shortly after it began, he has steadfastly refused to comment on Viganò’s allegations against him and has not announced any concrete policy proposals to combat clerical sex abuse — or improve accountability for past crimes — moving forward.

The crisis has complicated Francis’s already divisive papacy. Since Francis became pope in 2013, his more progressive ideology has attracted ire from more conservative camps within the Church, some of whom have used the crisis to attempt to weaken his position. Francis, meanwhile, seems to have treated the crisis as a personal attack, telling journalists that allegations against him were “attacks by the devil” and compared Viganò to the “great accuser,” Satan.

But that strategy might not cut it with American Catholics. As John Allen Jr., editor of the Catholic news site Crux, told a panel of journalists at the Faith Angle Forum in Miami Tuesday morning, American Catholics are even angrier now than they were when the initial clerical sex abuse crisis broke in the wake of the Boston Globe’s reporting on abuse in that city in 2002. “The anger today is actually much worse, much more intense, than it was in 2002. In 2002, the anger was about the revelations themselves — how in God’s name could priests do that to kids? … Added to that is how in God’s name could the church not have figured this thing out in the past 16 years?”

This latest move to stymy the efforts of the USCCB seems — as John Gehring, the Catholic program director at the DC-based clergy network Faith in Public Life, put it in a tweet — “tone deaf” at best. Given the widespread lack of trust in the Catholic Church and Francis in particular in handling the aftermath of this summer’s series of revelations, the move appears to many critics like yet another example of the Vatican putting its own interests over that of the thousands of victims of clerical sex abuse.

Gehring clarified his comments to Vox, saying, “If the Catholic Church wants to reclaim any credibility to be a voice for justice, the clock is ticking down fast. If this delay insisted on by the Vatican will bring greater accountability to police bishops, that is a victory. But the stakes are now higher than ever before.”

He added, “The root of this crisis is a toxic culture of clericalism,” referring to the notion — increasingly criticized by Catholics — that clergy are exempt from moral and social norms that apply to laypeople. “The days of special rules and putting the institution before people are over.”

The pope played a vital role in the decision

DiNardo did not comment on how much influence the pope had in the decision, telling reporters only that he received a letter from the Rome-based Congregation of Bishops, a Vatican office usually charged with the appointment of new bishops, not the pope himself.

It’s unclear why the call for the voting delay was made in the first place. Allen suggested that it may be rooted in legal issues, saying that the USCCB’s proposals were only fully drafted on October 30, giving the Vatican limited time to ensure that the wording of the proposals coincided with wider canon law. “Had the bishops adopted those things as they stood, there was a good chance that they’d be shot down in Rome and that was a set of objects that nobody wanted,” he said.

But, he noted, that doesn’t explain why the Vatican didn’t suggest emendations in time for the vote.

Either way, he said, we should understand the extent to which Francis, rather than other Vatican bodies, bears responsibility for the move.

“There is a very familiar narrative, when something happens in Rome that we think is wrong … [but] we don’t want to blame it on the pope,” he said. “We say, ‘Francis is struggling against resistance from these troglodyte archconservatives who are getting in the way of his progressive reform agenda.’ It’s not that there isn’t some truth to that. But where we are, more than five years into the Francis papacy, is that Pope Francis has almost completely neutered the traditional power structures in the Vatican. Departments that used to make decisions and have real power simply do not anymore.”

He added, “The decisions are being made in one place and one place only … [papal residence] Santa Marta, room 204. … It is a fool’s errand to think that ... Pope Francis is trying to do X but being interfered with by the Vatican that is trying to get in his way.”

Francis’s approval — tacit or otherwise — of the delay is, for many, Catholics an unfortunate one. And one that doesn’t bode well for February’s conference.

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