The Vatican has told the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to delay voting on measures to hold bishops accountable for failing to protect children from sexual abuse, the president of the conference said in a surprise announcement Monday morning.
In announcing the decision to his fellow bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo said he was disappointed by the Vatican's interference, which he said he learned of on Sunday afternoon.
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"At the insistence of the Holy See, we will not be voting on the two action items in our docket regarding the abuse crisis," said DiNardo.
For weeks, the US Catholic bishops have trumpeted a series of reforms they had hoped to make after what one cardinal called the church's "summer of hell." Those reforms must be approved by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which gathers the country's bishops twice a year to debate and adopt new policies.
The Vatican's eleventh-hour intervention, ordered by its Congregation for Bishops, according to DiNardo, essentially puts the American bishops' reforms on hold.
DiNardo, who looked shell-shocked Monday morning, tried to put a positive spin on the Vatican's decision, calling it a "bump in the road."
But many bishops gathered in Baltimore through Wednesday were surprised and unhappy about the Vatican's decision, he acknowledged. Bishop Christopher Coyne of Vermont said the bishops had been "thrown a little sidewise" by Monday's announcement.
"We are not, ourselves, happy about this," DiNardo said during a press conference Monday in Baltimore. "We have been working hard to get to the action stage, and we'll do it, but we have to get past this bump in the road."
DiNardo also said that the text of the proposals for the bishops' meeting this week were finalized in October 30, which did not leave much time for the Vatican to raise objections or advise modifications.
Pope Francis met with his ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, on Saturday, according to the Pope's public schedule.
Pierre is in Baltimore and addressed the body of bishops on Monday morning, though he did not mention the Vatican's insistence that the US bishops delay their vote. In a brief interview afterward, he said the Pope is concerned about "communion," the idea that the church moves together as a whole, rather than allowing national bishops conferences to make their own policies.
That goal, however, is in tension with the Pope's insistence that local church leaders are best equipped to understand and respond to the needs of their communities. Asked about the apparent contradiction, DiNardo called it "quizzical."
A Vatican spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Pope Francis will convene a meeting of bishops from around the world in February to address the sexual abuse crisis, which has roiled the church on several continents, including North America, South America and Australia.
The bishops' well-laid plans
The Catholic bishops had been expected to debate and vote on several "concrete measures to respond to the abuse crisis," according to a news release about the meeting in Baltimore.
Those measures, according to the bishops' conference, included a hotline to report bishops accused of abuse or mishandling abuse cases, standards of conduct for bishops and "protocols for bishops resigned or removed because of abuse."
The bishops can still debate those measures, but they will not taking binding votes on them this week, following the Vatican's intervention.
DiNardo said the Vatican's instructions came in the form of a letter from its Congregation for Bishops, which he said had concerns about church law. Under canon law, only the Pope can hold bishops accountable. The congregation also wanted the US bishops to wait to take action until after the meeting of bishops in Rome next February.
Catholic bishops in the United States have been heavily criticized for failing to hold themselves accountable for the sexual abuse of children, especially after a grand jury report in Pennsylvania released this summer found widespread evidence of abuse by priests and coverups by bishops.
In another scandal, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington and a powerful figure in the church, was demoted by Pope Francis after a man accused McCarrick of molesting him decades ago in New York. Since then, other men have come forward in media reports accusing McCarrick of molesting them while they were seminarians. McCarrick has denied the accusation from New York and is appealing his case at the Vatican.
A number of Catholic bishops have said they are concerned that McCarrick was allowed to rise through the church's ranks despite persistent rumors about his conduct. DiNardo and others traveled to Rome this fall to personally ask the Pope for the Vatican's help in investigating McCarrick.
Immediately after DiNardo made the surprise announcement on Monday, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, one of the Pope's closest allies in the United States, said the bishops should still discuss the proposals, even if they are not approved this week.
Cupich also suggested that the bishops could vote on the new measures at an emergency meeting in March.
"We need as a conference, as brother bishops, to take up this issue for the good of the church in this country without delay," Cupich said.