Jefferson City bishop 'shocked' after Vatican delays action against sex abuse

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JEFFERSON CITY - The Jefferson City Catholic Church's leader said Tuesday he wanted to set a code of conduct for American bishops,but due to a last-minute announcement from the Vatican, he cannot. 

Bishop W. Shawn McKnight said he wanted to accomplish three things at this year's U.S. Conference for Catholic Bishops in Baltimore: represent his people, set a standard of accountability for bishops and a commitment to studying the root of sexual abuse within the Catholic church. 

While he said he is able to represent his diocese at the conference, he might not achieve his other two goals. 

At the beginning of the conference, McKnight said he and other bishops were "shocked" when the conference received word the Vatican wanted to postpone discussions of a code of conduct. The Vatican announced Monday it wants to delay tackling the issue of sexual abuse until February, at the Senate of the Bishops, a gathering of worldwide Catholic church leaders. 

Bishop McKnight leads the diocese of Jefferson City, which has parishes throughout mid-Missouri. He said he had put time and effort into proposals for a possible conduct standard for all bishops. 

"We’re left, in some ways, to scramble, to figure out what we’re going to do from here," McKnight said. 

He said the diocese of Jefferson City already has a code of conduct that every member of the clergy signs. He said if all bishops are not able to develop one shared action plan, individual diocese developing their own plans might be the best solution for the time being.

"It’s very apparent to me that we need necessity of having decisive action that really shows people that we’ve had a change of mindset, and that we want to solve this problem at its roots," McKnight said. 

McKnight said he does not think the Vatican is trying to hide anything, but said he thinks the Vatican may want to handle the allegations as a united front.

"We’re Americans. We see a problem, we want to tackle it and we want to resolve it right away and move on. Whereas, I think Rome is more worried about making sure that everybody is moving together at the same pace. I’m not sure that’s the best thing to do," McKnight said. 

James Offutt, a retired priest in Centralia, said the Vatican is trying to cover something up. 

"They are definitely running from something," Offutt said. 

He said the American bishops did not need to cower to the Vatican's request to not work on the sexual abuse allegations.

"The bishops let the Vatican sabotage the conference. I’m sorry, the bishops are accountable. They should be accountable. They shouldn’t cave in to what the Vatican suggested," he said. 

Offutt said the Vatican should not be micromanaging and interfering with American proceedings. 

"They may get away with it this time, but I bet they don’t the next time," he said. 

McKnight said this issue is important to him.

"I’ve got people right now in my diocese who are hurting, people who probably not even come forward yet because they don’t feel they will be trusted, that the church will care for them," he said. 

Offutt said the Catholic church needs to deal with the sexual abuse problem right now. He said in his 55 years in the church, he heard the phrase, "It's for the good of the church," too often.

"It’s been my experience, when you hear that phrase, there’s been some bad in the church that’s been covered up. I don’t think we can go without addressing this issue now," Offutt said. 

The bishops were schedueld to vote on a standard code of conduct Wednesday. When asked what they would work on now that the Vatican asked them not to, Bishop McKnight said, "That's a good question."