Even as the bishops of America’s 196 Catholic dioceses and archdioceses gathered in Baltimore Monday to grapple with the latest major revelations — a Pennsylvania grand jury’s report from August detailing decades of abuse involving more than 1,000 victims and at least 300 priests — they were stopped in their tracks by an abrupt message from the Vatican, which asked them to hold off. That intercession arrived along with a warning from Pope Francis’s ambassador in the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, who seemed to scoff at the proposal, which the bishops had been set to vote on, to establish a lay commission that would assess bishops’ misconduct — “as if we were no longer capable of reforming or trusting ourselves,” as he put it.
That remark crystallized the arrogance that has often characterized the church’s stance even as countless exposés have laid bare the culpability of its leaders. From high and low, the church has broadcast its conviction that its own transgressions are no worse than that of other institutions; that state statutes of limitations that shield dioceses from lawsuits should be preserved; that no foothold may be allowed for mechanisms to discipline bishops who have enabled abuse by transferring pedophile priests from parish to parish.
Voices of moral clarity have been heard from within the church, urging genuine change. “Brother bishops, to exempt ourselves from this high standard of accountability is unacceptable and cannot stand,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a speech to the gathered bishops Monday following that of Mr. Pierre. “Whether we will be regarded as guardians of the abused or the abuser will be determined by our actions.”
Yet, more often than not, those voices have been ignored.
The pontiff has summoned bishops from around the world to the Vatican for a meeting to address the scandal in February; this summit, we are urged to believe, will once and for all set the church on a path toward surmounting the blight of abuse. The fact of that pending event was the proffered pretext for the church’s request that the U.S. bishops put off two items on their agenda this week in Baltimore: establishing the lay commission to review complaints against bishops, and adopting a code of conduct for themselves — the first such codified ethical guidelines.
The agenda was modest, and Rome’s intervention is telling. Again and again, the Vatican pays lip service to the suffering of victims. Again and again, it undercuts its own assertions of contrition.