VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has said it instructed U.S. bishops to delay voting on two key proposals on handling the sex-abuse crisis because it is committed to offering the “best evaluation and accompaniment” of the U.S. episcopate on the matter.

In brief comments to the Register Nov. 13, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, said he wished to offer “reassurance that the congregation is working for the best evaluation and accompaniment of the American episcopate’s questions.”

But the Canadian cardinal, whose dicastery issued the directive, was alone in his brief remarks on the matter. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin; the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre; and officials at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Holy See Press Office and the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors all did not respond to Register inquiries on the decision.

The unexpected directive instructed U.S. bishops not to vote on two key proposals that had been expected to form the basis of the Church’s response to clerical sex-abuse cases. The vote was scheduled to take place at the bishops’ fall general assembly, taking place in Baltimore through Wednesday.

Instead, the Vatican insisted that consideration of these new measures be postponed until the conclusion of a special international Vatican meeting of bishops on the sex-abuse crisis next February.

The bishops had viewed the two proposals — a draft “Standards of Conduct” for bishops and a proposal to create a new special investigative commission to handle accusations made against bishops — as a way to substantively tackle the crisis. The proposals were also meant to signal to the American faithful that the bishops were taking firm action following a series of clerical-abuse scandals in recent months.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, read out the directive at the assembly Monday morning, saying he had been only told of the Vatican decision the evening before. He said he was “disappointed” by the move, which he found “quizzical.” The bishops, he said, “are not happy,” but he was nevertheless hopeful the February Rome meeting would help improve whatever measures the U.S. bishops eventually take.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, a member of the Congregation for Bishops, said immediately afterward he believed the directive showed the Holy See was “taking the abuse crisis seriously,” but suggested the bishops discuss the two measures anyway to help equip Cardinal DiNardo for next year’s international meeting.

He also noted the urgency of tackling the issue and suggested moving forward the bishops’ June 2019 meeting to March, in order to act as soon as possible after the February meeting.

Register senior editor Matthew Bunson, who is attending this week’s meeting, said in his report on the first day’s proceedings that the Vatican directive Monday came as a “complete surprise to virtually all of the bishops” and that he saw it as a “deliberate act of humiliation” of the U.S. episcopate “at a time when they are trying in good faith to grapple with the greatest crisis in the history of American Catholicism.”

 

Possible Explanations

Some observers have pointed out that the text of the U.S. bishops’ proposed measures was finalized as recently as Oct. 30 and that the Vatican had flagged canonical problems with it. It should, therefore, not have come as a complete surprise to the bishops that the Vatican would ask that such a vote be delayed when it concerns both legally problematic proposals and the Pope’s authority to investigate bishops.

Sources also say it is likely the Vatican thinks U.S. bishops are overreacting (the issue of clergy sexual abuse does not generate equal amounts of concern in other countries, including Italy). Others, however, believe the unexpected directive shows a tone deafness in the Curia to the depth of anger and frustration felt by many of the U.S. faithful.

“They don’t realize that one of the last taboos on all sides is pedophilia,” said a Rome source close to the Vatican. “So everyone’s furious, and I predict this will hurt the Church.”

A contrary view is that Pope Francis wants to deter the U.S. bishops from taking a lax response that would enable them to continue governing with insufficient accountability over abuse, and so foster the clericalism that the Holy Father sees as a root cause of the problem. And some have speculated that the Vatican decision — which may have come from Pope Francis himself, as he had held separate private audiences Saturday with Archbishop Pierre and Cardinal Ouellet — was to prevent the U.S. bishops from perhaps being resistant to more substantive reforms that might be announced after the February meeting.

But others say it is unlikely he would have this concern, given his past record on handling abuse, which has sometimes sided initially with bishops and priests accused of abuse or abuse cover-ups, even when evidence has gone against them.

Examples often cited include Francis’ initial response to accusations made against Chilean bishops and his sacking of three CDF officials for reportedly being too severe in sanctioning abusive priests. He was also persuaded not to go ahead with a plan to establish a permanent criminal tribunal for bishops.

 

Collegial Contradiction?

Whatever the underlying reason for the Vatican decision, another key concern is that the move seems to contradict the Pope’s passion for collegiality.

A comparison can be made with the decision earlier this year, when the German bishops’ conference allowed intercommunion for Protestant spouses in some cases, despite protests from seven German bishops and other episcopates around the world who said it was a universal matter of faith requiring the participation of all bishops and the Pope. The Pope nevertheless allowed the bishops’ conference to go ahead, with the Vatican only interceding months later, after the concerned German bishops sent a joint letter to three Vatican dicasteries outlining their concerns.

“For decades, heterodox dissenters have been agitating for less Vatican centralized control and more devolution to bishops’ conferences — even on matters of doctrine,” said Benjamin Harnwell, director of the Rome-based Dignitatis Humanae Institute.

“But when it comes to issuing better provisions on the handling of the sexual-abuse crisis, something that might legitimately be devolved to episcopal conferences, the Vatican has insisted on coordinating it themselves,” he added.

“One can’t help but suspect that Church leaders such as Cardinal Cupich, who strongly supported the Vatican intervention, were in the past only advocating decentralization in order to dissent from doctrine, and not because they believed in decentralization.”

But the directive might also be simply directed at the Church in the U.S. for reasons yet to be fully determined.

Last week, the bishops’ conference of France decided to create an independent and external commission to address sexual abuse within the country’s Church. The Vatican, however, issued no directive to postpone that decision until after February. Italy’s bishops will also be meeting this week and are expected to release new guidelines on sexual abuse.

In his address to the conference Monday, Cardinal DiNardo said that despite the shocking announcement, the bishops “remain committed to the program of episcopal accountability,” and although “votes will not take place,” the bishops “will move forward.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.