Walk into any Catholic church in America and you'll find the same two flags somewhere in the sanctuary, usually on the altar.
One is instantly recognizable to Americans regardless of religious affiliation: It's red, white and blue and features stars and stripes. The other is gold and white and decorated by a pair of crossed keys and a tiara.
Once again this week, church leaders seem more interested in protecting the latter, the Vatican national flag, than they are the citizens of the former. With the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops poised to adopt measures meant to increase accountability for their handling of sexual abuse cases, the Vatican ordered them to stand down until Pope Francis can convene a global summit on the crisis next year.
The crisis management attempts come at truly the 11th hour. Diocese across the country have released lists of the priests credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor in the last month, building up to this week's conference.
Even this attempt at transparency was poorly executed: The diocese declined to issue a news release to the public or the media about the list.
As clueless as the American church leaders appear, the Vatican is clearly more inept when it comes to public relations. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meets on a regular basis, and the agenda is about as secret as the order of mass each Sunday.
To wait until the eve of the meeting's start to instruct the bishops to delay voting is dumbfounding, especially with a number of abuse survivors and reform advocates on-site and eager for the bishops to take action.
What's more, the proposed initiatives aren't exactly Vatican Council worthy. The recommendations are practical and long overdue steps to addressing the lack of accountability by bishops. Many Catholics find the scandal cover-ups, from Boston in 2002 to Pennsylvania this August, almost as despicable as the crimes, particularly when bishops respond to abuse by simply moving abuser priests to other geographic locales, where they are free to abuse again.
The U.S. bishops were set to answer parishioners' calls for change by creating a hotline for reporting bishops alleged to be abusers or to have covered up abuse, a review board made up of laypeople -- parishioners -- to hear allegations, a procedure to remove bishops determined to be abusers themselves, and a bishops' code of conduct.
The postponement certainly appears to be an attempt to let reform demands cool, particularly in the context of similar attempts in the past.
American bishops moved to adopt their own measures following the Boston scandal, examining ideas such as a zero tolerance policy for priests as well as establishing a layperson review board. The Vatican ordered a delay on those efforts, too, and ultimately squashed them.
Time will tell if American Catholics are in a repeat. The pope has called the global summit for February, and the leaders of the U.S. bishops conference will attend. The full U.S. bishops conference is scheduled to meet in March and could adopt recommendations from the global summit then.
Anything less than the proposals tabled by the bishops this week would be disappointing. The Vatican has been negligent in its failure to look out for parishioners for far too long.