BALTIMORE _ The first gathering of the nation's Catholic bishops since this summer's wave of anger and recrimination at the hierarchy's handling of clergy sex abuse opened Monday with a stunning announcement:
The prelates would not take a promised vote on a series of new accountability measures — and it was the Vatican that ordered them to hold off.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he was "disappointed" by the Vatican's eleventh-hour request, which he received in a letter marked "confidential" on Sunday night, hours before the three-day meeting in Baltimore was to begin.
Explaining its contents to a clearly surprised body of bishops, DiNardo said Pope Francis hoped to address the issue of bishop accountability more globally at a February summit in Rome.
"I remain hopeful that this additional consultation will ultimately improve our response to the crisis we face," said DiNardo, who leads the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese. Later, he said: "We remain committed to this specific program of greater episcopal accountability."
Still, the news seemingly pulled the rug out from what had been slated as a reckoning for America's prelates after what some called their "summer of shame."
The announcement was followed by a speech from the Vatican's top U.S. diplomat, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, which appeared to highlight the distance between the Roman hierarchy's plans and the proposals up for debate in the United States, including calls for more involvement by the laity in policing problem prelates.
"There may be a temptation on the part of some to relinquish responsibility for reform to others, as if we were no longer capable of reforming or trusting ourselves," Pierre said, while defending what U.S. bishops have done to reduce clergy sex abuse. "Surely, collaboration with the laity is essential. However, the responsibility as bishops of this Catholic Church is ours."
Before Monday's announcement, the bishops' meeting appeared as if it could be as defining a moment for the U.S. church as their 2002 conference in Dallas, where they adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward dealing with abusive priests.
The toppling this summer of top members of the hierarchy — including Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington and his successor, Donald Wuerl, the onetime leader of Pittsburgh's diocese — over sex abuse-related claims, as well as the damning Pennsylvania grand jury report in August, have led to demands from Catholics for church leaders to be more accountable. Meanwhile, prosecutors in more than a half-dozen states have opened investigations that threaten to tie up dioceses in legal matters for years.
The bishops had promised to debate specific proposals this week, including the adoption of a new code of conduct for bishop behavior and a lay commission to investigate prelates who have been accused of sexual misconduct or who mishandled such claims against clerics under them.
"Certainly, this morning's announcement has thrown many of us completely sideways, because it was completely unexpected," said Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt. "But this does not mean we suspend our agenda completely, it just means that we may not come to a point of action."
Some outside observers were skeptical of Rome's wider commitment to change.
"The Vatican just made a big mistake. ... The optics are terrible," John Gehring, program director at Faith in Public Life, a Washington-based clergy network, posted on Twitter. "It sends a message, intended or not, that Rome doesn't recognize the urgency of the moment."
Terry McKiernan, founder of the watchdog website BishopAccountability.org, described it as another example of Francis and the Vatican being "tone deaf and clueless" about how the wider world perceives their actions.
"The American bishops are not known for being very perceptive about this whole thing — and even they understand the situation is dire," he said. "I think part of what's going on here is that the Vatican was very uneasy that a bishops' conference was taking on the issue of bishop accountability, which the Vatican feels is its purview."
Sensing the lack of patience from Catholics in the pews, some bishops argued that it was not enough to leave their conference this week simply with promises for continued discussion.
"We need to tell our people where we stand," said Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, as he pushed for at least a nonbinding vote to show full support for the reforms on the table. "We as a conference need to take up this issue without delay."
DiNardo insisted that his own commitment had not wavered and likened the delay to a "bump in the road."
Asked later whether the Vatican's request to hold off signaled some concern over the proposals the U.S. bishops had put forth, DiNardo said Francis had been "very positive" about them during two meetings with a top U.S. delegation to Rome this fall.
He said he did not know whether the order to set aside a vote came directly from the pope. A Vatican spokesman did not return requests for comment.
"There may be within the Holy See itself, perhaps, some tension," DiNardo said. "Who knows? I know where we are and where we intend to go."
Francis' recent record on the sex-abuse crisis has some Catholics questioning his commitment. He was praised early in his papacy by pledging to create a Vatican tribunal to adjudicate bishop sex-abuse issues, only to abandon the plan within a year during strong resistance from his hierarchy.
And when the pope accepted the resignation of Wuerl last month over allegations that the cardinal helped cover up abuse decades earlier as Pittsburgh's bishop, Francis praised Wuerl's "nobility" for agreeing to resign — a move that left victims with little comfort.
Later Monday, during a session devoted to prayer and reflection, the bishops heard from two clergy sex-abuse victims who said the time for ambiguity was over.
"What would Jesus' response have been in the same situation?" said Luis A. Torres Jr. "Would he have called his lawyers and denounced the victims? Or would he have turned over the tables in a fit of rage and declared that this was intolerable in his father's house?
"Your action ... is needed right now. Not in three months. Not in six months. Yesterday."
Meanwhile, another, less-hopeful group of victims gathered outside in protest — including Patty Fortney Julius, one of five sisters whose abuse by a priest in Harrisburg, Pa., decades ago was highlighted in the grand jury report this summer.
Holding a sign with photos of her siblings at the ages they were victimized, she chalked Monday's postponement up to yet another in a string of delays she has come to expect from the church.
"It's always something," she said. "They're never going to do the right thing."