The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Catholic bishops vote to create a hotline for reporting abuse by bishops

Bishops pray Tuesday as they open their three-day meeting in Baltimore. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

The U.S. Catholic bishops voted on Wednesday to create the first national hotline for reporting sexual abuse committed by or mishandled by bishops. But they specified that the hotline send reports directly to other bishops, essentially demanding that the leaders of the scandal-plagued church police themselves instead of turning toward outside authorities.

“The victim survivors are a priority of all of us,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “I think this system will allow us to make sure anyone who has suffered abuse is going to be taken care of, from us, in a healing process.”

But others questioned whether the hotline, which the bishops approved by a vote of 205 to 16, will be designed in a way that will provide true accountability.

Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore Adam Parker is one who questioned the plan; he said that in his diocese, complaints go to an independent review board made up of lay people, not to a member of the clergy. “They are instructed to contact civil authorities. They contact [another bishop], and they contact the [Vatican], all three of those. ... That’s going to be very important as we consider this on the national level: Who will be those people who receive ... the call? And what, specifically, will they do with it?"

A lawyer involved in formulating the plan that the bishops approved on Wednesday said the national hotline will not be a direct route to law enforcement. The third-party vendor who receives the calls will report them only to bishops, not to police; the bishops will be charged with sharing information with civil authorities.

In creating the hotline, just as in enacting other policies for preventing abuse that the bishops plan to debate on Thursday as they end their three-day meeting in Baltimore, the U.S. bishops are constrained by Pope Francis, who has hampered American efforts to tackle the abuse issue in recent months.

U.S. bishops consider several actions to combat sexual abuse. Will Pope Francis get in the way?

When the American leaders first envisioned this hotline for reporting misconduct by bishops last year, they planned to pay an outside vendor who creates systems for anonymous online and telephone complaints about $5,000 to set up the system, and $25,000 per year to run it, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, said in a document circulated to the bishops at the meeting.

The envisioned hotline would have directed all complaints about bishops to the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, known as the nuncio, DiNardo said. The bishops planned to vote to create that hotline in November, at a national meeting where they planned several actions on abuse.

That meeting was derailed in its opening hour, when DiNardo said he had received a message from the Vatican asking American bishops not to take any action on abuse at that meeting.

Since then, Francis has released his own document on worldwide prevention of abuse — a document that U.S. bishops said forced them to change their plans to conform to Francis’s new Vatican law. In the case of the hotline, DiNardo said, reports can no longer all be sent to the nuncio.

Instead, the hotline operator will send a complaint about a bishop to the archbishop leading that bishop’s region, known as the “metropolitan.” If the metropolitan himself is the subject of the complaint, the report will be sent to the senior bishop in his region to handle.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago defended sending complaints straight to a fellow bishop. “There cannot be a report to an entity that’s apart from the metropolitan, in the sense that they decide whether or not they’re going to tell him,” he said, contrasting the plan that the bishops voted on with the independent review board that receives complaints in Baltimore. “You can’t have that separation there, where the metropolitan is ever kept in the dark.”

Spreading out complaints to so many bishops’ offices, rather than sending all to one destination, will also make the system much more costly, DiNardo said. He predicted it will cost $30,000 initially, and then $50,000 per year.

Anthony Picarello, a lawyer who worked with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops leaders who designed the plan, told the bishops that the metropolitan can choose to work alongside lay people in handling complaints.

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy told The Washington Post that he believes most bishops will be eager to work with lay people. “Every metropolitan will be looking for ways to have robust lay involvement about the evidence, the gathering of information, the commenting on information, and on liaisons with survivors. No one isn’t going to be doing that,” McElroy said.

Picarello also said that metropolitans will be instructed to call civil authorities immediately any time the hotline operator passes on a report about child sexual abuse or any other type of report that local law requires reporting. The hotline operator, he said, will not generally alert police about complaints.

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Tex., said to The Post after the vote that while he plans to encourage the involvement of lay people, "laity aren’t perfect either.” Bishops themselves are accountable, he said — to God. “We’re all answerable to the Holy Trinity.”

Asked whether he thought the recent investigation of former West Virginia bishop Michael Bransfield — in which a lay board’s findings were altered by an archbishop and not made public until a Washington Post report — taught the bishops anything, Strickland said, “You can always say we could do this or that a little better, but it resulted in accountability.”

West Virginia bishop handed out $350,000 in cash gifts, church records show

Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Ill., asked how people who have been abused will know they can call the hotline, which is scheduled to be operating by late May 2020. “Are we going to have billboards on the highways? I assume we won’t,” he said. “The last thing we want is to be accused of not being transparent about the system we’ve gone to the trouble of setting up.”