More than 15 years after pledging “zero tolerance” for predatory priests, U.S. Catholic Bishops have decided to establish a hotline for reporting clergy sexual abuse allegations.
Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to create the clergy sex abuse hotline yesterday, during their Annual Spring Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland.
The system will be operational within a year and allow the public to report bishops who protect abusive priests or cover-up allegations, either via telephone or an online link. An independent third-party will run the hotline and pass all allegations on to regional supervisory bishops.
The Church will spend an estimated $30,000 to get the clergy sex abuse hotline up and running, while annual operating costs are expected to come in around $50,000.
Although regional supervisory bishops are encouraged to seek help from lay experts when investigating clergy sex abuse claims received via the hotline, they are not required to do so. What’s more, the proposal adopted yesterday does not specify how the hotline would interact with law enforcement – a major sticking point for critics.
“In the United States, there is only one appropriate ‘third-party reporting system’ — the legal authorities,” said University of Pennsylvania professor Marci Hamilton, an expert on child-abuse prevention.
According to the Associated Press, Hamilton warned that bishops’ “incapacity” to give up control of clergy sexual abuse cases “will be their downfall.”
Terry McKiernan, president of a victim-advocacy group called BishopAccountability.org, suggested that anyone contacting the clergy sex abuse hotline should be advised to report allegations to law enforcement.
U.S. Catholic bishops have been dealing with the clergy sexual abuse scandal since 2002.
That year, a Boston Globe investigation revealed that Church authorities had turned a blind eye to the crimes of John Geoghan, a former priest who molested more than 150 boys while serving at six Boston parishes over a period of 30 years. Although several of his victims or their families reported Geoghan to church officials during that time span, the allegations were never passed on to law enforcement. And rather than remove him from ministry, diocesan officials merely shuttled Geoghan from parish to parish in an effort to conceal the abuse.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” just six months after the Boston Globe published its blockbuster report. Although the charter called for zero tolerance towards sexually abusive clergy, it did not address bishops who cover-up allegations or protect predatory priests.
Allegations of clergy sex abuse and cover-ups continued to roil dioceses throughout the United States in the ensuing years.
The scandal appeared to reach critical mass in 2018, when a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailed credible accusations against hundreds of priests throughout the state, as well as cover-ups by church officials that allowed the abuse to go unchecked and unpunished for decades.
According to a Pew Research Center survey released on Tuesday, about a quarter of Catholic respondents said they had cut back on Mass attendance and donations because of the continuing scandal and cover-ups. Just 36% of the Catholics surveyed thought U.S. bishops had responded well to the crisis.