BALTIMORE - U.S. Catholic bishops voted Wednesday to create a new national sex-abuse hotline run by an independent entity, a decision that represents one of the church's most tangible steps yet in confronting its sex-abuse crisis.
The hotline, which would field allegations that bishops committed abuse or covered it up, would take complaints by telephone and through an online link. It's supposed to be operating within a year.
Hotline operators would relay allegations to regional supervisory bishops. Church leaders are encouraging those bishops - though not requiring them - to seek help from lay experts in assessing and investigating allegations.
"I can't imagine a bishop not using a lay-led review board that's filled with people who have expertise in this area of investigation, people with a legal background or a law enforcement background," said Robert Barron, the auxiliary bishop of the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
Bishops approved the idea on the second day of their national meeting. The new system's startup costs were estimated at $30,000, with an ongoing annual cost of about $50,000.
The bishops raised questions about how the system would operate, including who would receive the reports, how the reports would be handled, when authorities should be notified and how the church would ensure that victims are taken care of.
Anthony Picarello Jr., general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, summarized it as a "very sophisticated switchboard." He said the church is engaging with at least one vendor that already provides a reporting system in Baltimore.
Bishops asked how the system will be publicized and urged the church to make clear to parishioners and others that they can continue to report allegations even before the system is operational.
The bishops' deliberations have been guided by a new law that Pope Francis issued on May 9. It requires priests and nuns worldwide to report sexual abuse as well as cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities.
Advocates for abuse victims have urged the U.S. bishops to go further by requiring that suspicions be reported to police and prosecutors, too.
"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. The bishops' "incapacity" to give up control of child sex-abuse cases "will be their downfall."
As approved Wednesday, the hotline proposal does not spell out how the new system would interact with law enforcement.
Terry McKiernan, president of a victim-advocacy group called BishopAccountability.org, agreed that was a shortcoming. He said people contacting the hotline should be advised to call law enforcement.
Picarello told bishops that once a supervisory bishop receives an allegation, "his obligation to report to civil authorities will be relevant, absolutely."
The abuse crisis has prompted many parishioners in the U.S. to reduce their donations and attendance at Mass.
A national survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center illustrates the extent of the disenchantment. The March poll found about one-fourth of Catholics saying they had scaled back Mass attendance and reduced donations because of the abuse crisis, and only 36% said U.S. bishops had done a good or excellent job in responding.
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, an authoritative source of Catholic-related data, 45% of U.S. Catholics attended Mass at least once a month in 2018, down from 57% in 1990.
By the center's estimates, there were 76.3 million Catholics in the U.S. last year, down from 81.2 million in 2005. The church remains the largest denomination in the U.S.
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Outside the bishops' meeting hall, a group of sex-abuse victims held a news conference to share accounts of their long-term struggles, including attempted suicides.
Shaun Dougherty, who says he was abused as a child in Pennsylvania, met beforehand with a group that included some of the bishops. He complained that they viewed themselves as victims.
"The last year of their life has been hell," Dougherty said. "I'm 49 years old. This began when I was 10. They have 38 more years to go before they even can say that their life is hell to catch up with me."
Events of the past year have posed unprecedented challenges for the U.S. bishops. Many dioceses have become targets of state investigations since a Pennsylvania grand jury in August detailed hundreds of cases of alleged abuse.
In February, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington was expelled from the priesthood for sexually abusing minors and seminarians, and investigators are trying to determine if senior Catholic officials covered up his transgressions.
Another investigative team recently concluded that Michael Bransfield, a former bishop in West Virginia, engaged in sexual harassment and financial misconduct over many years.
Even Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who heads the bishops' conference and the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese, has been entangled in controversy. Last week, The Associated Press reported a Houston woman's claim that he mishandled her allegations of sexual and financial misconduct against his deputy.
The archdiocese said it "categorically rejects" the story as biased. However, the archdiocese later said it would review the married woman's allegations that the deputy, Monsignor Frank Rossi, continued to hear her confessions after luring her into a sexual relationship, a potentially serious crime under church law.
Coincidentally, the second-largest denomination in the U.S. - the Southern Baptist Convention - also opened its national meeting Tuesday, gathering in Birmingham, Alabama, with an agenda similarly focused on sex abuse. The SBC had 14.8 million members in 2018, down about 192,000 from the previous year.
Crary reported from New York.