The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States traveled to Baltimore last week for their first meeting following an explosive grand jury report by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro detailing decades of sex abuse involving hundreds of priests across the state. They were there in part to confront this latest chapter in the scandal but left without taking any action.
The Vatican instructed the bishops to hold off voting on any reforms until next year. That's when Pope Francis plans to hold a summit in Rome to address the sexual abuse crisis that continues to engulf the church around the world.
Survivors of clergy sex abuse are angry and disappointed by the lack of action from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But given the woeful track record of bishops to take accountability for their role in covering up decades of bad clergy behavior, did anyone expect any substantive reforms to come from the meeting?
This is an institution that has presided over a criminal conspiracy and cover-up for more than half a century. The bishops have demonstrated they remain unable to hold abusive priests or themselves fully accountable.
There was hope Pope Francis would root out the wrongdoers and their enablers. But the scope of the scandal is entrenched and rife with coconspirators more interested in wallpapering over the horrific crimes. Not even the pope, it seems, has the fortitude to take on the powerful interests within the church who seem hell-bent on keeping a lid on the wrongdoing.
Yes, there have been sexual-abuse scandals at other institutions, including public schools, universities, other religious organizations, the media, politics, and Hollywood. But nowhere has the abuse been as widespread and accountability so disregarded. And few carry the moral weight of exploiting the authority of the Church to turn the faithful into victims.
As the recent investigation by the Inquirer and Boston Globe found, more than 130 U.S. bishops have been accused of failing to properly respond to sexual misconduct allegations, including Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Philadelphia's former archbishop.
Claims involving more than 50 bishops center on incidents that took place after a 2002 gathering of U.S. bishops, where they promised the church's days of cover-up and inaction were over. At least 15 of the bishops have been accused of committing sexual abuse or harassment themselves.
The only reckoning has come through grand jury investigations and civil claims. The recent Pennsylvania grand jury report showed the same playbook has been used in diocese after diocese to cover up the abuse. The report has prompted prosecutors in other states to launch investigations.
However, the statute of limitations for many of the crimes has passed. That is why lawmakers in every state must pass legislation that creates a window that allows victims to file civil lawsuits. The Pennsylvania legislature recently failed to pass such a bill.
The church has shown it is unable to reform itself. The threat of legal action is the only way to force the church to fully confront the sexual abuse scandal and do the right thing.