Victims of the child sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church were hoping for some action on reforms this week when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Baltimore.
They got thoughts and prayers instead.
The Vatican directed the U.S. bishops to delay their votes on two reform measures until a special council of bishops worldwide convenes on Feb. 8. Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston opened the conference on Monday with that announcement from Rome.
“We are not ourselves happy about this,” said DiNardo, adding he found the decision “quizzical.”
“We just have a bump in the road” on the way to reform, he said.
More than 250 bishops, including Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, were gathered in Baltimore. As Jay Tokasz of The News reported, they were expected to vote on the creation of a third-party reporting system to receive confidential complaints of sex abuse of minors by a bishop, as well as sexual harassment or sexual misconduct with adults by a bishop; and a new code of conduct for bishops regarding sex abuse of a minor or adult.
February is just three months away, but the order from Rome to wait until then comes as a great disappointment.
The church has been under increasing pressure to be more transparent and to hold bishops accountable in abuse cases, following a Pennsylvania grand jury report in August that documented many instances of bishops covering up abuse.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Pope Francis’ representative in the U.S., noted in Baltimore that a series of reforms implemented by bishops in 2002, following the scandal in Massachusetts uncovered by The Boston Globe, has led to a sharp decline in the incidence of reported abuse. That has not corresponded, Pierre noted, with a notable increase in public approval for bishops.
“Perhaps none should be expected,” Pierre said. “Trust needs to be earned, not presumed.”
The Vatican is hardly unaware of how the scandal has been making headlines across the United States, causing a public relations nightmare, as well as drops in financial support for the church.
After Malone’s questionable handling of sexual abuse complaints against priests in the diocese, several public figures in Western New York, including a congressman, the lieutenant governor and church deacons, have called on Malone to resign, as has The News’ Editorial Board.
DiNardo himself is under scrutiny in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston after reports that he was aware of sex abuse by priests in Iowa and Texas and did nothing to stop them.
A report this month, a joint project of The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer, found that more than 130 U.S. bishops have been accused during their careers of “failing to adequately respond to sexual misconduct in their dioceses.”
The U.S. bishops don’t have the authority to ignore the Vatican’s directive, though some activists called on them to do so.
“There’s no reason to wait,” Peter Isely, a victim of abuse and a founding member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said at the conference. “What do they need permission for? They need to do this now.”
The U.S. bishops did continue to refine their reform proposals at the conference. But having to kick the can down the road until February is not a good look.
Abuse victims and their advocates expected much more.