Baltimore Bombshell: Vatican Vetoes USCCB’s Planned Abuse-Prevention Reforms

An eleventh-hour Vatican directive blocks a much-anticipated vote on bishop-accountability reforms, but the USCCB president vowed to press for changes.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks during a press conference at the conference's annual gathering Nov. 12 in Baltimore.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks during a press conference at the conference's annual gathering Nov. 12 in Baltimore. (photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

BALTIMORE — Five months after Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s suspension from public ministry sparked an unprecedented crisis that has alarmed, angered and demoralized lay Catholics and clergy alike, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual fall assembly in Baltimore Nov. 12-14 was supposed to signal a sweeping course correction with new reforms designed to prevent future cover-ups.

Atop the agenda were two proposals that would be put to a vote during the three-day meeting: a draft “Standards of Conduct” for bishops and creation of an investigative commission that would receive accusations made against bishops and include lay specialists.

But that plan was upended as Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the USCCB, dropped a bombshell on the first day of the gathering.

Facing an auditorium packed with hundreds of bishops, he announced that an eleventh-hour directive from the Holy See barred the assembly from voting on the critical proposals.

The decision, he told his brother bishops, was made at “the insistence of the Holy See” and reached him the previous evening.

Later, he explained that the directive had come from the Congregation for Bishops, and he was told the Holy See wanted to delay votes on such measures until the conclusion of the February 2019 meeting in Rome that Francis has called to address the global clergy-abuse crisis.

“I am sure that you have concerns about this, as I do myself,” Cardinal DiNardo told the assembly, as he encouraged conference members to take their concerns to prayer and repeated his apologies to abuse victims who had gathered to address the bishops.

“The faithful and the clergy do not trust many of you. They are angry and frustrated, no longer satisfied with words and even with prayer,” said Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board, in a presentation on the board’s findings to the bishops. “They seek action that signals a cultural change from the leadership of the Church.”

Outside the Marriott hotel where the assembly had gathered, protesters carried signs calling for the “reform” of the Church.

Clearly worried that the unexpected order from Rome would stir further frustration and anger, Cardinal DiNardo made clear that the USCCB leadership was undeterred.

“We remain committed to the program of episcopal accountability,” he stated emphatically. “Votes will not take place, but we will move forward.”

The assembly’s subsequent deliberations, often passionate and occasionally painful, and augmented by public comments during press conferences, provided a window into the troubled souls of the assembled shepherds.

Most striking of all, perhaps, was Cardinal DiNardo’s repeated pledge of obedience to Pope Francis.

“We are Roman Catholic bishops in communion with our Holy Father in Rome,” said Cardinal DiNardo when asked to explain why he hadn’t set aside the Vatican directive and moved ahead with the scheduled votes. When the Holy See transmits its decision, he said, “we respond.”


Wide-Ranging Discussion

During a wide-ranging open-floor discussion that touched on the need for reforms, but also explored options that were already available within existing Church practice and the Code of Canon Law, Bishop George Thomas of Las Vegas said Catholics in his diocese were “rightfully” angry that the votes on the proposals were put on hold.

“The perception is that justice delayed is justice denied,” he said, expressing hope that the assembly would move forward with a largely symbolic “advisory vote that reflects the gravity of the issue at hand, the urgency of the matter, the depth of the breach of trust … affecting so deeply the living Body of Christ.”

Canon law already gives metropolitan archbishops oversight responsibilities, and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, echoed calls for metropolitans to be given greater authority over the bishops in their province along with the power to conduct their own inquiries.

“We have an existing structure, but it needs to be empowered,” said Archbishop Naumann.

Bishop Andrew Cozzens, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, noted that bishops were already free to engage in fraternal correction, but suggested that few were prepared to do so.

“I dream of a day when we as brothers are strong enough to say, ‘We think you should resign,’ even if he’s not ready to hear that,” he said. “Those are difficult conversations to have, nobody wants to have them, but they can be very important.”


McCarrick’s Misconduct

The pointed exchanges regarding fraternal correction exposed the wounds that Archbishop McCarrick’s alleged history of abuse and misconduct had inflicted on his victims. Reportedly, many Church authorities had heard rumors about him, and others received reports or signed off on settlements but did not try, or did not succeed, in removing him.

The record of failure was indisputable. And one or more teenage boys were allegedly damaged for life, as well as seminarians and young priests under his authority. Now, as he lives in a secluded Kansas friary, those he left behind sought to explain what had gone wrong, even as multiple investigations in the U.S. and Rome could result in further disgrace for sitting or retired U.S. Church leaders who tolerated his actions.

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, asked whether those who shrugged off Archbishop McCarrick’s behavior still held to Catholic moral teaching.

“It’s part of our deposit of faith that we believe homosexual activity is immoral,” said Bishop Strickland. “How did he get promoted if we are all of one mind that this is wrong? Do we believe the doctrine of the Church or not?”

Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon, said the scandal prompted an extended examination of conscience.

“Have we lost sight about what our mission is truly all about?” he asked. “Our mission is to sanctify the world,” and genuine, lasting reform “begins with us individually.”

Cardinal William Levada, who served as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when McCarrick was appointed archbishop of Washington, D.C., in 2005, suggested that the Vatican might have handled his case differently if strong investigations were routinely conducted before bishops were transferred to new dioceses.

Cardinal DiNardo, for his part, squarely addressed the importance of ongoing investigations into Archbishop McCarrick’s record that are underway in the Vatican and four U.S. dioceses, though no reports have been issued. “This … needs to be addressed,” he agreed. “It’s just bad for our people.”

Meanwhile, bishops also raised concerns about the presence of an alleged homosexual subculture in the Church and the role it may have played in Archbishop McCarrick’s advancement — remarks that were greeted by bursts of applause from the assembly.

The Archbishop McCarrick scandal has “provided clarity,” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the Register.

“It brought things to light that were in the shadows about the need for this kind of accountability.”

He acknowledged the bishops’ disappointment with the Vatican’s decision to block the vote on the two proposals, but he emphasized that they remained unanimous in their support for further reforms that would strengthen bishops’ accountability.


Task Force Created

Denied a consequential vote on the two proposals, Cardinal DiNardo took two further steps, one practical and one a largely symbolic gesture, to help shore up the bishops’ credibility.

First, he announced the creation of a task force — composed of himself and all the former USCCB presidents, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York; Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky; and Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta — that would work with conference committees to examine the substance and possible mishandling of abuse reports and present its findings at the bishops’ June 2019 meeting.

Second, amid lingering questions about the outcome of the Vatican’s archival review of documents related to Archbishop McCarrick’s case and whether relevant materials would be made available to the USCCB, a final vote was designed to “encourage” the Vatican to share the documents related to its investigation of McCarrick.

Yet even this small gesture was challenged by Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, and other conference members who framed the measure as a sign of disrespect toward the Holy See. The measure was defeated in a 137-83 vote.

Still, Cardinal DiNardo put the best face possible on the assembly’s proceedings, and he did that by straddling what looks like two increasingly divergent responses to the Church’s unprecedented crisis.

First, he affirmed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “loyalty and devotion” to the Pope “in these difficult days.”

“I am sure that, under the leadership of Pope Francis, the conversation that the global Church will have in February will help us eradicate the evil of sexual abuse from our Church,” he said. “It will make our local efforts more global, and the global perspective will help us here.” 

Then he promised his brother bishops that their shared goals for reform would be a “springboard for action” by the global Church and that the USCCB’s plan to secure reforms was still “on course,” despite the increasingly visible rift between the Vatican and the USCCB leadership. 

Likewise, Archbishop McCarrick’s dark legacy and the ongoing struggle to investigate and identify the corruption that cloaked his predation has exposed and deepened tensions within the conference that demand prudent leadership if the campaign for reform can begin to move forward, protect the faithful from other would-be McCarricks and rebuild the lost credibility of America’s Catholic shepherds.


Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.