When the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, announced to bishops at the start of their November 12-15 annual fall gathering that the Holy See had insisted they table plans to vote on a code of conduct for themselves and a proposed lay commission to probe allegations against bishops, a sense of shock and disbelief descended on the large ballroom inside the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel.

For the rest of the three-day gathering, it never really left.

“Here and now our people are angry, embarrassed, confused, and disgusted,” said Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix in a November 14 intervention.

Since the revelations about alleged abuse by former cardinal Theodore McCarrick began to emerge last summer, American bishops like Olmsted have issued numerous statements and letters, faced the outrage of lay faithful and sex abuse survivors in bruising listening sessions, and seen their own credibility questioned like never before.

They were also confronted with the contents of the controversial testimony of former Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and the Pennsylvania grand jury report, both of which included bombshell claims that have not all been fully proven by verified documentation or subjected to due process in court.

That’s why many bishops seemed eager for this gathering to finally happen, so that as a unified body they could put forward a series of new protocols and measures that would reassure scandalized, confused, and often angry Catholics back home that something was being done to hold abusive bishops and their enablers accountable and restore trust.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, listens to a question Nov. 12 during the fall general assembly of the USCCB in Baltimore. Also pictured is Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, general secretary. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The bishops had come to Baltimore expecting to vote on a three-pronged response to the crisis — a new “code of conduct” for bishops, the establishment of a new ethics hotline and a special commission board to handle complaints against bishops.

Instead, they were greeted with the announcement from DiNardo: “At the insistence of the Holy See, we will not be voting on the two action items in our docket regarding the abuse crisis.”

The Holy See’s action resulted in a last-minute gutting of the meeting’s planned agenda. This in turn allowed for an unprecedented series of extended sessions of freewheeling discussion of some of the more practical aspects of leading dioceses through the reawakened sex abuse crisis.

Many observers — both in the room and following the events on livestream and commenting on social media — expressed surprise at many of the bishops’ passion and candor.

Discussion topics included the ways in which bishops should or shouldn’t investigate or “fraternally correct” fellow bishops, the definition of “substantiated” and “credible” allegations, the consequences of homosexuality in the ranks of the priesthood, and the role of lay people in ensuring accountability.

And thanks to the presence of lay people who weren’t afraid to give them an earful, the bishops received a call to conversion they won’t soon forget.

Francesco Cesareo, chair of the National Review Board, speaks Nov. 13 at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

“The faithful and the clergy do not trust many of you. They are angry and frustrated, no longer satisfied with words and even with prayer,” said Dr. Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board, in a presentation on the board’s findings to the bishops. “They seek action that signals a cultural change from the leadership of the Church.”

“You are not called to be CEOs. You are not called to be administrators. You are not called to be princes,” priest abuse survivor Luis A. Torres Jr. told bishops on November 12, which was set aside as a “day of prayer” for the bishops to reflect on the crisis.

“What would Jesus’ response have been in the same situation?” the lawyer and member of the Diocese of Brooklyn’s Lay Review Board asked. “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?”

Dr. Heather Banis was invited to Baltimore to share her insights based on her experience as the Victims Assistance Ministry coordinator for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. She urged bishops to listen to victim-survivors in “unfiltered,” face-to-face meetings.

Heather Banis, a clinical psychologist who is victim assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, speaks November 13 at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE/BOB ROLLER

“We learn from hearing their sacred stories, and we honor them in those stories, but it’s very different when you do it,” the psychologist told the bishops. “The power of that exchange can be remarkable.”

At least three visibly moved bishops were seen leaving their chairs to speak to Banis before she could exit the ballroom immediately after her presentation.

During the meeting’s final hours, bishops tried to craft a one-paragraph statement urging the Holy See to release all documents related to McCarrick’s rise through the Church hierarchy despite reports of misconduct with seminarians dating back to the 1980s.

The proposal was eventually defeated in a 137-83 vote after Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark reminded their colleagues that the Vatican had already promised in early October a full investigation of all of its McCarrick-related files and a release of its findings — although not necessarily the documents themselves.

“So we’re going to be asked to vote on asking the Holy See to do what they want to do?” asked Cupich. Cupich had surprised many in the room when he stepped to a microphone immediately after DiNardo’s announcement at the start of the meeting and proposed a March meeting of U.S. bishops to consider the next steps following a planned Vatican summit on child abuse prevention in February.

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago speaks Nov. 12 during the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

In the end, there were no concrete actions taken by the USCCB on the abuse crisis in Baltimore. DiNardo admitted as much in his concluding remarks, but also said that the disappointment he’d expressed over the Vatican’s decision had turned to “hope” two days later.

“Brothers, you and the speakers we have heard from have given me direction and consensus,” DiNardo said. “I will take it as a springboard for action. Listening is essential, but listening must inform decisive action.”

The Houston archbishop also made a point of pledging “loyalty and devotion” on behalf of the USCCB to Pope Francis, despite visible frustration among many bishops with the decision by the Vatican to block the two proposals.

“I am sure that, under the leadership of Pope Francis, the conversation that the global Church will have in February will help us eradicate the evil of sexual abuse from our Church,” said DiNardo. “It will make our local efforts more global and the global perspective will help us here.”

If one thing is for certain in the wake of Baltimore, t’s that efforts by bishops to balance obedience to the Successor of Peter with the need to show action to frustrated faithful and priests — not to mention potential state and federal authorities that could soon be investigating them — will not get any easier any time soon.

New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond, front right, and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., pray during Mass Nov. 12 at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

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