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By quashing the American Catholic bishops’ bid for an independent investigation into the burgeoning sex-abuse scandal, the Vatican has left the US hierarchy in an impossible position. The bishops cannot ease the anger of an enraged laity without appearing disloyal to Rome; they cannot maintain unity among themselves without further alienating their flocks; they cannot restore their own credibility without damaging the credibility of the Holy See.

The November meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was expected to bring decisive action, after a painful summer of new revelations about the negligence—and worse—of many American bishops. The most prominent items on the meeting’s agenda were the proposal for a thorough investigation, controlled by laypeople, and a companion call for a code of conduct to which bishops might be held accountable. But on the eve of the meeting, the Vatican issued instructions that the American bishops should not take action on those two proposals.

When Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the USCCB president, announced the Vatican’s decision, there were audible gasps from the body of bishops. Cardinal DiNardo said that he himself was surprised and disappointed by the Vatican’s instruction, which had been conveyed to him only the previous evening. The shocking message from Rome deflated the sense of urgency that had surrounded the meeting, and before the meeting adjourned on Wednesday, the bishops—who had arrived in Baltimore in a feisty mood, ready for action—actually voted down an innocuous resolution to “encourage” a thorough disclosure by the Vatican of documents pertaining to the scandalous career of the disgraced former cardinal, Theodore McCarrick.

There were dramatic moments at the USCCB meeting, to be sure. A few bishops hinted that they would be ready to vote on the top agenda items despite the Vatican’s instructions. The lay leader of the bishops’ National Review Board, Francesco Cesareo, delivered a scorching address in which he told the bishops that they had lost the trust of their people, and recommended that some bishops resign in recognition of their moral failures. Cesareo told the bishops that they must fully investigate the charges made this summer by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal nuncio in Washington, that Vatican officials (including Pope Francis) had advanced McCarrick’s career despite clear evidence of his misconduct. “No stone must remain unturned,” Cesareo said. “Ignoring these allegations will leave a cloud of doubt over the Church.”

In the weeks leading up to their meeting in Baltimore, dozens of bishops had issued similar calls for a thorough investigation of the Viganò charges. Cardinal DiNardo had traveled to Rome to ask Pope Francis to authorize an “apostolic visitation”—a Vatican-authorized investigation that would have the authority to require cooperation from reluctant bishops, and to release documents from files both in the US and at the Vatican. But Pope Francis had declined the request.

In fact, far from encouraging the American bishops in their pursuit of the truth, Pope Francis had suggested that the USCCB meeting be postponed—that the American bishops should hold a spiritual retreat rather than discussing the action items on their agenda.

So perhaps it should not have been a surprise that the Vatican eventually intervened to remove those potentially explosive items from the USCCB agenda. Still, the heavy-handed nature of the action was stunning. The American bishops’ plans had been well known for weeks. Why did the Holy See wait until the night before the bishops gathered?

As soon as Cardinal DiNardo announced the Vatican’s decision to restrict the USCCB agenda, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago was on his feet, ready to defend the move. Cardinal Cupich—a close ally of Pope Francis, whose promotion within the hierarchy was reportedly championed by McCarrick—had evidently been privy to the Vatican’s plans. Yet it was clear that Pope Francis, who has spoken frequently about his desire to decentralize authority within the Church, had made no effort to brief the elected leader of the US bishops’ conference. For that matter, the pope who has spoken so often about collegial and synodal governance had shown little concern for the opinions of the American bishops.

How could the Vatican justify this high-handed intervention against the American bishops’ bid for reform? Defenders of the move suggested that the Vatican feared some aspects of the USCCB plan might conflict with the Church’s system of canon law. But if any such conflicts had arisen, they could have been resolved in due course by the appropriate ecclesiastical tribunals. And Pope Francis has consistently displayed an insouciant attitude about canon law—on several occasions blithely violating canons rather than using his unquestioned authority to amend them—and has frequently inveighed against the “doctors of the law.”

Cardinal DiNardo said that he had been told the Vatican wanted the US bishops to hold off on making plans until after a worldwide conference on sexual abuse, which Pope Francis has scheduled for February 2019. Yet the Vatican has allowed the French bishops to set their own policies in advance of that meeting, and the Italian bishops’ conference is planning to implement new national standards. Why did the Vatican treat the American bishops differently?

The answer, frustrated American Catholics might legitimately suspect, lies in the specific focus of the USCCB plans: for an investigation into the career of McCarrick and the charges made by Archbishop Viganò. These are American-based scandals, but they are scandals that—if Viganò’s charges are accurate—point to further corruption in Rome. And the Vatican did not want that investigation to proceed.

How many American bishops would have supported a no-holds-barred inquiry? We might never know. But now all of the American bishops will face angry and insistent questions from their people, who want to know why the hierarchy is not ready for full disclosure.

Philip Lawler is editor of Catholic World News and author of The Smoke of Satan.

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