U.S. Catholic bishops made clear their frustrations Wednesday as a national assembly focused on clergy sex-abuse neared its conclusion without strong new steps to combat the multifaceted crisis.
Avoiding any direct confrontation with the Vatican, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ended the public sessions of its three-day meeting without any vote on two major anti-abuse proposals that had been drafted weeks ago. On the eve of this week's meeting, the Vatican issued a surprise order for such action to be delayed until after a global meeting on sex abuse scheduled for February.
"The decision of the Holy See to constrain us did allow a limited response,'' Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont said. "All of us are disappointed that we weren't able to do as much as we wanted.''
The U.S. Catholic church has been grappling with sex-abuse scandals for many years, but events this year have taken a heavy toll on the leadership's credibility.
In August, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania detailed decades of abuse and cover-up in six dioceses, alleging more than 1,000 children had been abused over the years by about 300 priests. Since then, federal prosecutors and attorneys general in several other states have launched investigations.
Bishops at this week's meeting appeared to be most angered and embarrassed by the scandal involving disgraced church leader Theodore McCarrick, who allegedly abused and harassed youths and seminarians over many years as he rose to be archbishop of Washington and a member of the College of Cardinals until his removal by Pope Francis in July.
Several investigations, including one at the Vatican, are underway to determine who might have known about and covered up McCarrick's alleged misconduct. The U.S. bishops expressed eagerness to learn details of the Vatican probe but defeated a motion Wednesday pressing for access to information uncovered in that process.
"We have taken no official action to distance ourselves form the shameful behavior of one of our own,'' said Bishop Liam Cary, of Baker, Oregon. "What do people make of our silence?''
Bishop Michael Olson, of Fort Worth, Texas, noted with regret that McCarrick has not been defrocked and would have been eligible to participate in this week's assembly.
"He is not welcome,'' Olson said. "We should say that for his sake, and out of respect for those he has harmed.''
For much of Wednesday's session, the bishops discussed the two anti-abuse proposals that initially had been scheduled for votes. One would establish a new code of conduct for individual bishops; the other would create a nine-member special commission, including six lay experts and three members of the clergy, to review complaints against the bishops.
Leaders of the conference said the Vatican intervened to ensure that steps taken by the U.S. bishops would be in harmony with those decided at a Vatican-convened global meeting on sex abuse in February. They also said more time was needed to vet aspects of the U.S. proposals that might conflict with church law.
The head of the bishops' conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese, said a newly formed sex-abuse task force would work on fine-tuning those and other proposals ahead of the global meeting in Rome in February. One proposed step will be a national mechanism for publishing the names of clergy who face substantiated claims of abuse.
"I opened this meeting expressing some disappointment - I end the meeting with hope,'' DiNardo said. ``We leave this place committed to take the strongest possible action at the earliest possible moment.''
In other action, the bishops approved a pastoral letter condemning racism, the first time they have spoken as a group on that issue since 1979.
"Every racist act - every such comment, every joke, every disparaging look as a reaction to the color of skin, ethnicity or place of origin - is a failure to acknowledge another person as a brother or sister, created in the image of God,'' the document said.
It also denounced racial profiling of Hispanics and African-Americans and decried "the growing fear and harassment'' of people from Muslim countries.
According to Catholic News Service, the committee responsible for the pastoral letter rejected a proposed amendment that would have included the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate, along with nooses and swastikas.
The bishops also voted to endorse a campaign seeking sainthood for Sister Thea Bowman, a Mississippi-born descendant of slaves who became the first black member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and - in 1989 - the first black woman to address a national meeting of the bishops' conference.
Among the bishops elected to USCCB posts was Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who will head the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. Cordileone, an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, suggested Tuesday that the bishops commission a new study on whether there's a link between clergy sex abuse and the presence of gays in the priesthood. A church-commissioned study in 2004 determined there was not a link.
Not far from the assembly venue, a Minnesota attorney who handles sex abuse cases nationwide and three men who say they were abused by clergy during their boyhoods gathered to announce a lawsuit against the bishops conference, accusing it of hiding the crimes of predator priests.
Jeff Anderson, who filed the lawsuit this week in federal court in Minnesota, said the bishops were named because their dioceses kept secret files about clergy whose misconduct might expose the church to more abuse accusations.
"We are taking the opportunity to do everything we can together to protect kids, to disgorge the secrets,'' Anderson said.
The federal lawsuit demanding a trial by jury has six plaintiffs; three joined Anderson in Baltimore.
Among then was Joseph McLean, of Minneapolis. The priest he says abused him decades ago was publicly named as a "credibly accused'' offender in 2015 by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
"I am here to protect kids today. I'm here to protect kids tomorrow. And I'm here to protect children who have grown into adults and who haven't had an opportunity to heal from the abuse that they suffered,'' McLean said.