The highly anticipated national meeting of Catholic bishops last week opened with high drama, closed with a whimper, and in the end raised only more questions about the American hierarchy’s capacity to tackle the most profound threat to its moral credibility in the modern era.
Bishops gathered in Baltimore expecting to vote on proposals addressing the lack of accountability measures for themselves, a telling reminder of clericalism’s stubborn durability sixteen years after Boston and the consequent approval of the Dallas Charter, which applied to priests but did not cover the actions of bishops. The urgency of implementing mechanisms that would cover abusive hierarchs, as well as those who send credibly accused priests back into parishes, was underscored by a Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer joint investigation released a few days before the meeting. More than 130 bishops, the investigation found—nearly one-third of those still living—have been accused of failing to adequately respond to sexual abuse in their dioceses. Among them is Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who presided over the meeting as president of the bishops’ conference and who has been cited by abuse survivors for mishandling cases in Iowa, when he was a bishop in Sioux City, and more recently in Texas.
After a “summer of shame,” which included a Pennsylvania grand-jury report detailing six decades of systemic abuse and the fall of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, expectations for this meeting ran high. National media turned out. Protestors rallied outside the downtown hotel where the bishops met. To leave Baltimore without taking at least some tangible action, it seemed, would be episcopal negligence, another insult to abuse survivors, a sign of stunning tone deafness as Catholic anger mounts. But almost before the bishops could settle into their seats came the stunning announcement from Cardinal DiNardo: a last-minute communiqué from the Vatican (specifically, the Congregation for Bishops) directed the bishops not to hold a planned vote on proposed protocols until the February meeting in Rome that will include presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world.
“We are not ourselves happy about this,” Cardinal DiNardo acknowledged later in a press conference. Other bishops openly grumbled. Media reports fueled the narrative that church leaders still don’t get it. I’ve attended at least a dozen bishops’ gatherings over the years; never before have I seen the air go out of a meeting so quickly. Some bishops may have been quietly relieved given the concern that the proposals—including a new standard of conduct for bishops and a lay-led commission to investigate claims against bishops—were put together quickly and likely did not have enough backing to win the necessary two-thirds vote to pass.
Questioned by reporters, Cardinal DiNardo offered only a brief explanation of the Vatican’s decision. The text of the proposals, he said, had been flagged by the Vatican for having some canonical problems, and Rome is clearly worried that piecemeal solutions can be problematic in a global church. Veteran journalist Andrea Tornielli, citing an anonymous Vatican source, reported that the proposal for a bishops’ code of conduct was “too generic,” while that for a third-party reporting mechanism lacked canonical authority.