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U.S. Catholic bishops leave Baltimore conference without acting on sex abuse reforms

Facing the prospect of leaving their most closely watched gathering in years with no consensus response to the sex abuse crisis that has gripped their church since summer, the nation's Catholic bishops pushed Wednesday for something – anything – they might approve to show they were taking the problem seriously.

Bishops gather for the third and final day of the annual fall conference of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Wednesday in Baltimore.
Bishops gather for the third and final day of the annual fall conference of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Wednesday in Baltimore.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

BALTIMORE – Leaving their most closely watched gathering in years without acting to address the sex-abuse crisis roiling their dioceses, the nation's Catholic bishops seemed gripped by dismay Wednesday at the prospect of returning home to their parishioners empty-handed.

Despite a last-minute push for something, anything, that might show they were taking the problem seriously, the prelates cast no votes and adopted no new accountability policies. Even a referendum on whether to push the Vatican to release files on disgraced Cardinal Theodore McCarrick split the room.

"I'm convinced that there has to be some sort of consultative – or straw – vote," said Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange, Calif. "We can't just sit back and do nothing. We have to make a statement."

Still, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he found reason for optimism.

"What we have done here is a sign of hope for me, not a disappointment," he said. "We leave this place committed to taking the strongest possible action at the earliest possible moment."

DiNardo's upbeat comments as the bishops closed their annual fall gathering stood in contrast to his clearly deflated demeanor Monday as he told his colleagues about the last-minute Vatican order that they cancel their plan to vote this week on a slate of reform proposals.

The bishops nonetheless debated the measures over three days — and that discussion suggested the Holy See may have done them a favor by intervening. Their talks revealed a broad consensus that something has to be to done to address growing outrage from Catholics in the pews, but deep rifts on how to solve the problem.

One marquee reform proposal – a call to establish a laity-led review panel for investigating problem bishops – sharply divided the conference even Wednesday.

Strike the entire idea, more than one bishop wrote anonymously on a list of amendments to the proposal that circulated Wednesday morning.

Others suggested that bishops' conduct should be judged by their colleagues, not by lay members of the church.

"We deserve to be evaluated by a jury of our peers," said Bishop Greg Hartmayer of Savannah, Ga. "There's no one who understands a bishop more than another bishop."

DiNardo said Wednesday that he had appointed a task force to consider fresh input from the bishops this week. He also said he will retool the proposal for a review board before taking it and other suggested reforms to Rome early next year for a global summit on clergy sex abuse.

"I am sure that under the leadership of Pope Francis, the conversation that the global church will have in February will make a serious step toward eradicating sexual abuse in the life of the church," he said.

Francis has indicated he hopes for a worldwide response to the problem, though he has not specified why he urged the U.S. bishops to delay acting on their reform plans this week.

Citing unnamed sources, Vatican reporter and insider Andrea Tornielli reported that some within the church hierarchy have concerns that the measures under consideration by the American prelates went beyond the bounds of canon law.

And there's no guarantee their proposals – which also include a new code of conduct for bishops and the establishment of a third-party hotline for complaints against problem prelates – will be endorsed by Catholic leadership half a world away.

Discussing his trip to Rome last month for a synod on Catholic youth, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia told his fellow American bishops that he struggled to engage prelates from other parts of the globe on the topic of abuse.

"There was little appetite," he said. "People in some parts of the world say it's not an issue for them. Others don't seem to want to talk about it in public."

As the hours counted down to their adjournment, Chaput's colleagues signaled a growing sense of alarm that they hadn't said enough.

As if to prove the point, a small group of abuse victims resumed the near-constant vigil they have maintained outside the conference hotel since Monday, while lawyer Jeff Anderson invited reporters to a news conference at which he unveiled his latest lawsuit against bishops he blames for cover-ups and inaction.

"Yes, it's opportunistic," said the Minnesota attorney, who has devoted most of his practice to clergy sex-abuse cases. "But we are taking the opportunity to do everything we can together to protect kids, to disgorge the secrets."

Anderson planned to make a similar announcement about a Pennsylvania-based lawsuit in Philadelphia on Thursday.

That reception outside the building wasn't new for many bishops who spent their time cloistered in a hotel ballroom this week. It's also why they were reluctant to return home to without clear answers.

"Our credibility has not been proven to the people sitting in the pews," said Richard Stika, bishop of Knoxville, Tenn.

With no votes on the table, discussion turned to alternatives. McCarrick — whose alleged sexual misconduct with seminarians and younger priests made him the poster child for this new era of the U.S. clergy abuse crisis – became a frequent target.

Bishop Liam Cary of Baker, Ore., said he was astounded that four months after allegations against the cardinal became public, the pope had asked him to resign but the U.S. conference had not made any formal statement about his behavior.

"What are people to make of our silence?" he asked. "Could it lead them to believe we don't take shame seriously?"

Cary's call for a formal vote of censure and a ban preventing McCarrick from attending any future meeting of the U.S. bishops' conference echoed suggestions by others that he should be laicized — and drew a round of applause.

"He is not welcome," said Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, of the cardinal, who was not seen at the conference this week. "We should say that out of respect for his sake and respect for those he harmed."

On even that note, they could not agree on the appropriate action.

Still, after the conference concluded, Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, Vt., said the week's debate had been fruitful.

"All of us were disappointed that we weren't able to do as much as we wanted," he said. "But I think we did the best that we could."