BALTIMORE — Their voices blunted by a Vatican demand to delay action on sexual abuse reforms, the country’s Roman Catholic bishops ended a contentious three-day gathering Wednesday with a call to implement tough accountability standards as soon as possible.
“We leave this place committed to taking the strongest possible actions at the earliest possible moment,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We will do so in communion with the universal church.”
The American bishops had hoped to move ahead on their own this week, pushed by a Pennsylvania grand jury this summer that alleged decades of rampant abuse and the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, after accusations of sexual abuse and misconduct.
But the Vatican squelched the votes, as startled US bishops were asked Monday to wait at least until February, when the church will hold a global meeting in Rome to discuss the crisis.
The proposals would have subjected US bishops, for the first time, to accountability standards in sexual abuse cases. The plans also would have created a commission of lay people and clergy to investigate violations forwarded by an independent, third-party system that collects complaints against bishops.
Instead, they left Baltimore with a pledge to continue working and a new task force to explore and strengthen accountability options.
“We are on course to accomplish these goals,” DiNardo said in his closing statement.
But after a third, long day of meetings and prayer, the conference adjourned amid a jumble of emotions: frustration, impatience, and cautious optimism that the delay will result in a system that finally holds bishops accountable for sexual abuse and misconduct.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston said he was heartened by the conference.
“I think the urgency is palpable here among the bishops. We will certainly communicate that to the Vatican,” O’Malley said.
“There is no doubt in my mind how important this issue is. As unpleasant as it is, the temptation is to run away from it,” said O’Malley, who is Pope Francis’s top adviser on sexual abuse. “We have to face it. We have to work with healing. We have to work for safeguarding.”
That sentiment was echoed by Auxiliary Bishop Mark O’Connell, who oversees 60 parishes north of Boston. “I saw a determination among the bishops and a real pivot about what can we do,” O’Connell said.
DiNardo outlined several checkpoints in the road ahead.
The task force, he said, will further develop a process to investigate complaints against bishops reported through a third-party hot line; finalize the standards of accountability; and study national guidelines to publicize the names of clergy facing substantiated claims of abuse.
The options include forwarding allegations to archbishops and lay-dominated review boards. Eventually, the complaints would be relayed to the Vatican’s envoy to the United States with a request to begin a preliminary investigation.
“There is more to be done, but what we have done is a sign of hope,” DiNardo said.
But many bishops remained worried that accountability could slow or grind to a halt in the opaque Vatican bureaucracy. Now, they must wait until mid-2019, at the earliest, to adopt standards of behavior and a protocol for dealing with allegations against bishops.
“It’s been a very frustrating kind of experience,” said Bishop Peter Christensen of Boise, Idaho. “Much as we do respect the Holy See, we know how long it takes the Holy See” to act on many issues.
Despite DiNardo’s closing statement that he began the meeting with disappointment but ended it with hope, the public relations optics were not good in Baltimore.
“When the headline reads, ‘Vatican tells bishops to back off on reforms dealing with sex abuse,’ that’s a disaster. No matter how you try to explain it, it doesn’t sound good,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for Religion News Service.
“What the Vatican doesn’t understand is that our house is on fire,” Reese added. “They’re telling us don’t turn on the hose because if you turn on the hose, that means everybody’s going to have to turn on the hose.”
O’Malley, however, said the Vatican’s vetting would be involved in any event. He recalled the pushback among bishops to the 2002 charter on sexual abuse adopted in Dallas, when American bishops approved guidelines for priests but exempted themselves.
“When the charter was written, there was a lot of resistance because it was something very new,” the cardinal said. “Yet after the resistance was put down, it became the gold standard. I think we’re in that position again.”
The road to continued reform will be challenging, said O’Malley, whose ministry has become inextricably linked to the crisis.
“As difficult and painful as dealing with the sexual abuse problem and safeguarding is, there’s nothing more important to the life of the church,” O’Malley said. “That’s what motivates me.”
While the bishops deliberated Wednesday, critics gathered outside the harborside hotel where they met. The protesters included Siobhan O’Connor, a former executive assistant to Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone, who has been accused of vastly understating the number of priests in his diocese who have faced credible allegations of child abuse.
O’Connor, who said she resigned in August, carried a sign that read “Clean House.”
“I want to be here as a prayerful presence,” said O’Connor, who resigned amid revelations that more than 100 priests had faced credible accusations in Buffalo, more than twice the 42 names released by Malone, the former bishop of Portland, Maine.
O’Connor said American bishops should not wait for Rome to begin reform on their own. “Go back to your diocese and do the right thing,” she said.
Elsewhere in Baltimore, lawyers for six survivors of abuse announced Wednesday that they had sued the conference for allegedly concealing the histories and identities of clergy accused of sexually abusing children.
The survivors — from California, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania — demanded that the identities of all known offenders in the country’s 196 dioceses be disclosed, including the 120 dioceses that have not released a list.Thomas Farragher of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.