BALTIMORE — A long time ago, they were young, newly ordained parish priests who heard confessions on Saturday afternoons, celebrated Mass on Sunday mornings, and lived in rectories — places of honor in their small towns and big cities where passersby deferentially tipped their hats to them.
But those men, mostly white and mostly gray, are now the leaders of a church once again being rocked by crisis scarcely imaginable when — fresh from the seminary — they promised to celebrate faithfully the mysteries of Christ.
And, this time, it is trouble of their own making.
“The events of this past year, which we have lived and continue to experience, have been both challenging and sobering,’’ Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal ambassador to the United States, said as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered Monday.
“With humility and apostolic courage,’’ Pierre said, “we must accept our responsibility as spiritual fathers, facing reality with the grace that comes from the Lord.’’
Humility. Courage. That is exactly what the Roman Catholic church was seeking here this week.
Turns out, that will have to wait.
This week’s fall general assembly was to be perhaps the last chance for the Catholic Church in the United States to once and for all address a chronic crisis that has staggered its faithful — parishioners who increasingly are sleeping in on Sunday mornings and tossing that weekly donation envelope into the recycle bin.
As The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer have reported, more than 130 bishops — almost one-third of all living bishops — have been accused during their careers of failing to adequately respond to sexual misconduct in their dioceses, according to the newspapers’ review of thousands of court records, media reports, and interviews with church officials, victims, and attorneys.
This week, in this harbor city, it was time for another reckoning. But, as some stunned bishops learned Monday morning, that reckoning has been placed on hold.
Rome has ruled.
The Vatican has asked the bishops to delay votes on policies to address the clergy sex abuse crisis until after a February meeting with the pope and the presidents of bishops’ conferences around the globe that will focus on the crisis.
“I think in Rome there’s always the fear that the United States is going to run off in their own direction and they want to make sure that what we do is in concert with the other bishops,’’ Cardinal Sean O’Malley said hours after learning of the Vatican’s 11th-hour mandate.
“We knew before we ever came together that whatever was decided here would need a green light from Rome, particularly when it comes to bishops and judging bishops and holding bishops accountable. So I think in Rome they want to make sure that they’re part of the discussion before a final vote is taken.’’
Despite that Vatican-imposed postponement, this conclave of the American bishops — in some respects — echoes their meeting 16 years ago in Dallas, where they imposed new standards that led to the removal of hundreds of priests. At that meeting, they, remarkably, exempted themselves from what was then hailed as landmark measures to protect kids from pedophile priests.
In 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who months later would resign in disgrace, was at the center of the clergy sexual abuse storm, protected by his aides from protesters who angrily called his name as he sheepishly walked through the lobby of a Dallas hotel.
This year, another archbishop from Boston, Cardinal O’Malley, is at the center of the debate about what the church can do — what it must do — to heal wounds whose fresh scabs have ripped open as grand juries and attorneys general from coast to coast launch investigations, examining a church that they are convinced is no longer capable of policing itself.
“I think there’s a great desire for action on the part of the bishops,’’ O’Malley said in an interview outside the hotel ballroom where bishops are meeting this week. “I have not heard anybody saying this is going too far, or we don’t need to deal with this now.’’
O’Malley’s impatience was plain to read on his face.
He’s had to deal with a crisis of faith before.
Just before he became the sixth archbishop of Boston in 2003, I visited the Virgin Islands, where he began his work as a bishop in St. Thomas, and spoke to a woman there — Charlene Kehoe — who had lost her faith in the Catholic Church.
When she visited with O’Malley in the mid-1980s — the bearded bishop in a brown robe and sandals — she was struck by his genuineness and by his message when she asked him about her fruitless search for spiritual enlightenment.
“Give the church another chance,’’ O’Malley then told Kehoe.
When I reminded Boston’s cardinal of that story the other day, he nodded knowingly and said that message he imparted as a young bishop has lost none of its spiritual power.
“For us, the church is the body of Christ and no matter how deficient leadership might be, it’s still the church that allows us to participate in Christ’s life, to receive the sacraments, to hear the word of God,’’ O’Malley told me.
“As painful as this whole situation is, and as shameful as it is, it’s not the whole story of the church,’’ he said. “We have a long history and sometimes the history was very dark. But we believe that he’s with us. He promised that he would be with his church until the end. And that belief gives us strength to live through these dark times.’’
Dark times. Exactly. And that darkness now lingers in Baltimore.
O’Malley must know that the Catholic Church is running out of second chances. There is skepticism everywhere. Even longtime Catholics are looking at Baltimore this week and wondering whether the church’s contrition, its promises to finally get it right, is truly genuine.
In Baltimore this week, there will be prayers. There will be celebrations of the Eucharist. Maybe there will be some whispers about humanity and contrition. And some raised voices about what is going on in the minds of their superiors in Rome.
The American bishops this week were about to get another chance — perhaps their last one — to make a genuine confession.
It’s been put on hold by Rome.
“We have not lessened in any of our resolve for actions,’’ said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Texas, president of the bishops’ conference. “We are going to work intensely on these items of actions. . . . We just have a bump in the road here.’’
When the time for true penance comes around in February, the bishops will know what to say.
Few know as well that Roman Catholic sacrament that begins this way: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.’’Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.