There was a single big item on the agenda when U.S. bishops convened in Baltimore last week: how to confront the child sex abuse scandals that perennially soil the church.
The bishops were prepared to debate whether to create a lay commission to investigate complaints, including the power to make recommendations for disciplining bishops. These church leaders would consider a new code of conduct that could cover clerics’ sexual relationships with adults and other issues of abuse of power.
For years, the bishops have ducked such action. In adopting new protocols in Dallas 16 years ago, the bishops refused to adopt a tough policy that would hold themselves accountable for concealing or facilitating crimes of their subordinates. Many American Catholics may have thought — hoped — that the reckoning finally had arrived.
At the last minute, the Vatican told American bishops: Wait. Do nothing until a global meeting on sex abuse set for February in Rome. Vatican officials say they need more time to make sure U.S. proposals don’t conflict with church law.
What to make of this stalling? Credit Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich for arguing that there is “grave urgency to this matter and we cannot delay.” He and others urged the assembly to find some way of endorsing the accountability proposals despite the Vatican order of delay. He was overruled. “Frustration is a luxury I feel I can’t afford,” he said. “I wanted to offer a pathway forward for us to take up the discussion as a body, make some decisions … but also say something to our people.”
That’s the right sense of urgency. Earlier this year, a Pennsylvania grand jury revealed a horrendous scandal, involving more than 1,000 children sexually abused by priests over seven decades. Since then, federal prosecutors and attorneys general in several other states including Michigan, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and New York, have launched investigations. And Pope Francis is fending off allegations from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a former Vatican ambassador to the U.S., that the pontiff knew about, and essentially ignored, long-standing accusations of sexual misconduct by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, now retired, of Washington, D.C. Vigano has called on Francis to resign.
We’re not surprised that the bishops caved to Francis’ command to wait. They serve at his pleasure, after all. If they want to keep their jobs, they obey. And all those children who were abused by priests over the years? All those families devastated because some bishops transferred accused priests to other parishes, where they would abuse more children? All those leaders who told no one — not the new parishioners and, significantly, not the police. How will the church ensure that culpable leaders suffer consequences for their actions?
That will have to wait.
— Chicago Tribune