VATICAN CITY — The Vatican blocked U.S. bishops from taking measures to address the clergy sex abuse scandal because U.S. church leaders failed to sufficiently consult with the Holy See beforehand about legally problematic proposals, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press.
The Nov. 11 letter from the Vatican’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet provides the primary reason that Rome balked at the measures that were to be voted on by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at its Nov. 12-14 assembly. The blocked vote stunned abuse survivors and other Catholics who were demanding action from U.S. bishops to address clergy sex abuse and cover-up.
Ouellet’s letter undermines the version of events provided by the conference president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo. It could also provide fodder for questions during a spiritual retreat of U.S. bishops, dedicated to the abuse crisis, that opens Wednesday in Chicago.
They may want to know why the draft proposals from the U.S. only arrived at the Vatican on Nov. 8, four days before the U.S. bishops’ meeting began. While the Vatican is known for its slow pace, even the speediest bureaucracy would have found it difficult to review and approve sensitive legal documents over a long weekend.
“Considering the nature and scope of the documents being proposed by the (conference), I believe it would have been beneficial to have allowed for more time to consult with this and other congregations with competence over the ministry and discipline of bishops,” Ouellet wrote to DiNardo.
The main goal of the U.S. bishops’ fall meeting had been to approve a code of conduct for bishops and create a lay-led commission to receive complaints against them. The measures were a crisis response to the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, once a senior American cleric who is now accused of molesting minors and adults, and new revelations of old sex abuse cases and their cover-up in Pennsylvania.
DiNardo stunned the bishops when he opened the assembly Nov. 12 by announcing that “at the insistence of the Holy See” the bishops would not be voting on the measures after all. He said the Vatican wanted them to delay a vote until after Francis hosts a global summit in February on preventing sex abuse by priests.
While DiNardo blamed the Vatican, the letter from Ouellet suggests that the Vatican felt that DiNardo had tried to pull a fast one by intentionally withholding legally problematic texts until the last minute.
That the Vatican would have wanted a say in crafting the texts is not surprising, given the Holy See alone has exclusive authority to investigate and discipline problem bishops.
“While fully aware that a bishops’ conference enjoys a rightful autonomy … to discuss and eventually approve measures that are within the conference’s powers, the conference’s work must always be integrated within the hierarchical structure and universal law of the church,” Ouellet wrote.
In a statement Tuesday to The Associated Press, DiNardo characterized the disconnect as a misunderstanding. He said he assumed the Vatican would have had a chance to “review and offer adjustments” to the measures after the U.S. bishops approved them, not before. He insisted that U.S. bishops were not trying to appropriate Vatican powers for themselves.
“It is now clear there were different expectations on the bishops conference’s part and Rome’s part that may have affected the understanding of these proposals,” DiNardo said in a statement. “From our perspective, they were designed to stop short of where the authority of the Holy See began.”
The U.S. strategy, it seems, was to avoid drawn-out negotiations before the vote so the U.S. bishops could present the Vatican with documents after the fact. The U.S. bishops presumably wanted to avoid the problematic back-and-forth that happened in 2002 when U.S. bishops approved a “one strike and you’re out” policy against abusive priests.
DiNardo, in his statement to the AP, said he had shared the “content and direction” of the proposals with multiple Vatican offices in October and went ahead and drafted the final version of the proposal on investigating bishops after encountering no opposition.
“We had not planned, nor had the Holy See made a request, to share the texts prior to the body of bishops having had an opportunity to amend them,” he said.
During a Nov. 12 press conference, DiNardo was asked when the Vatican was actually consulted about the measures. He replied the texts were finalized Oct. 30 and that the delay in finishing them might have been a problem.
“So it’s not surprising, on one level, that people would be catching their breath, perhaps even in Rome,” he told reporters. DiNardo also acknowledged, when pressed by a reporter, that the texts themselves had some legal problems, though he downplayed the severity of them.
“There were some points in one or two of the documents where the canon law needed further precision,” he said.
In his statement to AP, DiNardo said he had told Ouellet that failing to vote on the texts “would prove a great disappointment to the faithful, who were expecting their bishops to take just action. Though there were canonical precisions mentioned, the emphasis seemed to be on delaying votes and not wanting to get ahead of the February meeting of episcopal conference presidents,” he said.
Ouellet did indeed cite the February meeting in his letter, saying any document “should incorporate the input and fruits of the college of bishops’ work of common discernment.”
But the February summit was announced on Sept. 13. If that were the primary reason for Ouellet’s demand to scrap the vote, he could have communicated that to DiNardo sooner.
Instead, Ouellet’s demand came after he finally read what U.S. bishops were preparing to vote on.