US Reporting Mechanism for Episcopal Abuse Cases Could Go Live by February

General counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told bishops Nov. 13 that a contract had been finalized.

(photo: USCCB Facebook page)

BALTIMORE — A national third-party reporting system for allegations of abuse, neglect or misconduct against bishops could be activated by February 2020, the U.S. bishops’ conference said Wednesday.

Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told bishops Nov. 13 at their annual fall meeting in Baltimore that a contract had been finalized for the anticipated third-party reporting mechanism for allegations of abuse, neglect or misconduct made against bishops.

The system could be ready for use, he said, well ahead of the Holy See’s May deadline. However, metropolitans and dioceses would need to be ready to receive allegations.

Picarello spoke to the U.S. bishops near the close of their general meeting in Baltimore this week. The bishops had elected a new conference president — Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles — and a new vice president, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, as well as six committee chairs.

In September 2018, the bishops’ executive committee had initially proposed a third-party reporting mechanism to handle accusations made against bishops. The decision followed new claims of sex abuse that had been made against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick in the summer of 2018; in August, McCarrick was removed from the College of Cardinals and assigned to a life of prayer and penance.

At their November 2018 meeting, however, the U.S. bishops did not take substantive action on the abuse crisis, following instructions from the Vatican that they not act until a clergy sex-abuse summit in Rome would be convened in February 2019.

After that February summit, Pope Francis issued his apostolic letter Vos Estis Lux Mundi, which outlined a canonical process of handling accusations of abuse, neglect or misconduct made against bishops.

To handle such accusations, the U.S. bishops voted overwhelmingly at their spring meeting in June to authorize a third-party reporting mechanism to receive accusations made online or by phone.

The mechanism had to be updated from the bishops’ September 2018 proposal. For instance, Vos Estis called for allegations against bishops to be sent to regional metropolitans, not just the apostolic nuncio. Also, the system would have to handle specific violations outlined in Vos Estis, not those listed in the U.S. bishops’ “Code of Conduct.”

Picarello said on Wednesday that at their September 2019 meetings, the bishops’ Administrative Committee picked the vendor Conversant for the reporting system, decided how costs would be allocated, and finalized a contract. Dioceses would be billed directly for their portion of the overall cost.

The contract provides that the reporting system could go live by February 2020, he said.

In the ensuing discussions after Picarello’s presentation, some bishops expressed concern that the hotline could be hit with a deluge of irrelevant requests.

Once the number for the national hotline is advertised, could people share “all sorts of concerns,” such as priests not genuflecting for the consecration at Mass? That was the question asked by Bishop Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Illinois, at the insistence of his metropolitan, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago.

Franciscan Bishop Gregory Hartmayer of Savannah, Georgia, asked if the reporting mechanism could be advertised too much.

Picarello replied that a process will be in place promptly to filter out irrelevant claims and ensure that allegations are pertain to bishops and to those acts of misconduct listed in Vos Estis.

“We just want to make sure this system is reserved for this very specific, very high-priority purpose,” Picarello said. The conference, he said, will provide advertisement resources for regional provinces but will ultimately leave the implementation to dioceses and provinces.

Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, asked how allegations made against religious superiors would be handled on the hotline. Picarello said the conference is waiting on a canonical determination for that question, as the matter is “complex.”