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After delaying bishop vote, can Vatican be trusted to right its own ship?

A protester holds a document during the annual US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Monday in Baltimore. Brendan SmialowskiAFP/Getty Images

Monday was a sad, but clarifying, day for Catholics. By unexpectedly stopping a vote on greater accountability for US bishops enmeshed in the child sex abuse crisis, the Vatican dashed any remaining illusions that it was capable of imposing accountability from within.

It’s now abundantly clear that the church can’t be trusted to police itself, or even to invite others to police it. Efforts to hold priests and higher-ups accountable within the church hierarchy have hit a dead end.

It’s never been more clear that it now falls instead to law enforcement, in every state and every country, to punish any bishops or other church officials who commited abuse or covered it up. State and federal prosecutors need to drop any remaining reticence and use every law enforcement tool available to them, including grand juries and racketeering statutes, to punish wrongdoers.

That’s harsh. But how can the Vatican be trusted to right its own ship now? Sixteen years after the abuse scandal broke in Boston, the church is still resisting accountability. On Sunday night, the Vatican sent word that they didn’t want US bishops to hold a planned vote on reforms.


The move undercut reform-minded leaders like Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, who has been vocal about a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse. The Archdiocese released a statement calling the delay “unexpected,” and said that O’Malley would still be an advocate for revising rules “to hold bishops accountable, greater transparency including the release of names of clergy accused of abuse, and increased lay involvement and leadership.”

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Baltimore was intended to address the fallout from a fresh crop of scandals this year, including the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and a damning report from a Pennsylvania grand jury that documented abuse by hundreds of priests over decades. A joint investigation by The Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer also found that more than 130 bishops have been accused during their careers of ignoring or failing to adequately address abuse allegations.


Supposedly, the reforms the bishops were set to enact would have violated canon law, the church’s own set of internal rules. That excuse only reinforces the reasons why so many Catholics continue to lose confidence in the church: Its rules and traditions clearly aren’t capable of delivering justice. Delaying the vote until global church leaders meet in Rome in February to discuss the abuse crisis also speaks volumes about the institution’s lack of urgency on the matter.

American bishops, at least, seem to be coming to the realization that the church needs to do more — and right away. “Whether we will be regarded as guardians of the abused or the abuser will be determined by our actions,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States bishops’ conference.

The stakes are now higher to right the many wrongs of clergy sexual abuse. Ideally, leadership should be coming from the Vatican. If the bishops had backbone, they would have defied Rome and passed reforms anyway. Instead, once again, the church continues to protect the abusers.