The members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, mindful of a need for urgency, voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to create a nationwide third-party system that Catholics and others can use to report acts of sexual misconduct by bishops.
The proposal was the first of four aimed at addressing an ongoing sex abuse crisis in the church to be considered by America’s top Catholic clerics at their spring meeting in Baltimore.
Under the new system, complainants will be able to make reports confidentially, either by phone or online. All reports will go to the archbishop, or metropolitan, of the province in which the accused bishop lives, as well as to the apostolic nuncio, the pope’s direct representative to the United States.
In cases where an archbishop is the subject of a complaint, the report would go to the second-ranking bishop in his province.
The proposal does not specify that such reports must go to civil authorities, but like every proposal dealing with sex abuse this week, it is subordinate to a larger edict on sex abuse Pope Francis issued last month.
That document, titled Vos estis lux mundi, or “you are the light of the world,” established a framework of universal norms governing bishop accountability in sex abuse cases. It stipulated that its provisions must comport with state laws, “particularly those concerning any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities.”
Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the bishops’ conference, emphasized that point before the bishops cast their votes.
“Once the report is received by the authority within the metropolitan, the civil legal reporting obligations would attach then,” Picarello told the clerics in a ballroom at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel. “Respect for civil authorities would be built into the system.”
The measure passed with 205 votes in support, 16 against and three abstentions.
The group also overwhelmingly passed provisions empowering its administrative committee to work out the details of the reporting system and called for the mechanism to be in place no later than May 31 of next year.
The idea for a third-party reporting system is not new. The bishops were prepared to discuss and possibly vote on a similar one at their meeting in November in Baltimore. But Pope Francis intervened, directing the conference to take no definitive actions until after he could meet during the winter with the national heads of the Catholic church from around the world.
At least three models for such a system exist at the local level, including in Maryland. In January, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori announced the creation of a third-party reporting system within the half million-member diocese.
Members of the public can file reports online through an independent vendor, EthicsPoint.com, which then sends the allegations to two members of a Baltimore diocesan independent review board, the nuncio, and, where appropriate, to civil authorities. The review board members are retired judges and unaffiliated with the Baltimore diocese.
The Archdiocese of Boston later adopted a version of the system, the first of its kind in the country. It is also in the process of being adopted in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
The West Virginia diocese is part of the province that includes Baltimore. Lori recently completed an investigation into alleged sexual and financial misconduct by that diocese’s former bishop, Michael J. Bransfield. Lori is serving as its interim bishop, at least until Bransfield’s successor is named.
The sex abuse crisis has rocked the church, particularly in the wake of several high-profile cases that made headlines last year.
The bishops intend to vote Thursday morning on three related proposals. The most important would approve a four-page plan adapting the pope’s mandated reforms to the United States. One of its provisions is to adopt the so-called metropolitan plan of disciplining bishops, which advocates greater lay involvement in investigations but stops short of granting laypeople independent oversight.
They’ll also vote on a statement that would explicitly declare that the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People – a 2002 document that affirmed a “zero tolerance” stance against child abuse – applies to bishops as well as other clergy.
The clerics will also decide whether to approve a proposal granting active bishops the authority to discipline retired bishops who are credibly accused of sexual misconduct.