U.S. Catholic Bishops Head to Baltimore for Annual Conference Amid Child Sex Abuse Scandal

A lone protester stands outside the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Baltimore on Nov. 13, 2018. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

There was a lot of talk but not a lot of action.

When American clerics at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops began their annual fall gathering in Baltimore on Monday, they were eager to take bold, decisive steps to address what many see as the biggest issue facing the church in years: the resurgence of the child sex abuse crisis.

But when public sessions finally wound down Wednesday afternoon (Nov. 14), those hoping to tackle the issue came away largely empty-handed, their efforts stymied by a last-minute request from the Vatican to wait until after a global meeting on the subject in February to vote on prepared measures designed to hold bishops accountable if they protect abusers or commit abuse themselves.

“I opened the meeting expressing some disappointment. I end it with hope,” said USCCB president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, although it wasn’t clear whether all of his fellow bishops felt the same.

Reports have since emerged from Italian newspapers that Vatican officials felt they were not given enough time to review the pending USCCB resolutions and quibbled with some of the language. But bishops in Baltimore noted another possible reason for the pushback: an emerging tension between American and international bishops, with U.S.-based clerics desperate to address the abuse crisis and a global church wary about the implications of their actions.

“This is not completely the reason it’s happening, but it’s part of why this is happening,” said Christopher J. Coyne, bishop of Burlington, Vt.

Over the course of the three-day meeting, bishop after bishop gave voice to the anger, frustration and confusion they have heard from Catholics since the Pennsylvania attorney general unveiled a report documenting decades of alleged abuse by the church, and especially since revelations concerning Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s alleged history of abuse emerged earlier this year.

“Some of my pastors have been taken aback by the rage they’ve faced” about the abuse crisis, said Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, N.J., who stressed that clerics should “keep victims central.”

Tobin and others were hoping the USCCB’s leadership in answering this anger would set an example for the rest of the church, as it had largely done in 2002 in the aftermath of the Boston Globe’s famous Spotlight report. Bishop Robert Deeley of the Diocese of Portland, Maine, pointed to the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” a landmark series of church reforms about sex abuse crafted in that year.

“It is, in fact, the American church which brought about those kinds of changes which make it possible for the rest of (the world),” said Deeley, who was working at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when American bishops petitioned Vatican officials to approve the charter.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service, Jack Jenkins