The Boston province, which encompasses the Catholic dioceses of four New England states, has rolled out a third-party, independent system for reporting misconduct and sexual abuse by bishops.
The system, which allows people to file reports anonymously over the internet and through a telephone hotline, was announced in mid-August, several months before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was expected to unveil its own national reporting system.
“The province determined it wanted to move ahead sooner while the USCCB designs and develops the national third-party system,” Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, told Our Sunday Visitor in an email interview.
The system, which is called EthicsPoint, was initially designed for the Archdiocese of Boston, but the other bishops from the Boston province decided to adopt EthicsPoint after meeting earlier this summer.
“I wholeheartedly agreed with this, as I did not see a good reason to delay this any longer,” said Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont. In a prepared statement provided to OSV, Bishop Coyne said he sees the Boston system as complementing, not replacing, the national reporting system.
“Both avenues, when in place, will provide for the anonymous reporting of misconduct by bishops to an independent third party,” Bishop Coyne said.
As the national bishops’ conference moves forward with developing the national reporting system, Donilon said the Boston province expects “to transition to the new system at the appropriate time.”
On June 12, the USCCB voted to authorize the implementation of a process that will allow people to file complaints against bishops. The system, which will permit people to make reports online and through a toll-free telephone number, will be operated by an outside vendor and is to be in place by May 31, 2020, though no specific date has been set, according to a spokesman for the USCCB.
That vote took place a little more than a month after Pope Francis promulgated his motu proprio, Vos Estis Lux Mundi (“You are the Light of the World”), which requires the establishment of new procedural norms for investigating crimes by bishops, including allegations of sex abuse and cover-ups.
Donilon said the EthicsPoint system is now live for all seven dioceses in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. He said any reported criminal allegations against bishops are forwarded “immediately” to law enforcement authorities and the apostolic nuncio in the United States.
Donilon added that the Archdiocese of Boston since 2011 has also used EthicsPoint, which is managed by NAVEX Global, for people to report allegations of financial misconduct and other non-abuse related concerns.
“It is a very effective, confidential and independent system with a proven track record,” Donilon said.
Meeting the task
According to information posted on the EthicsPoint website, the reports are entered into a secure server and made available to the metropolitan, the bishop of the principal see of an eccelesial province — in this case, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston.
Under the metropolitan’s leadership, the archdiocese of Boston is responsible for evaluating each report and forwarding along “any allegation deemed proper” to the police and the nuncio, “as necessary.” The archbishop then awaits further direction from the nuncio, law enforcement or both as to whether an investigation will be initiated.
Critics of how the Church has handled allegations of sexual abuse argue that the Boston province’s system is another form of the Church promising to police itself. Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who has represented scores of clergy sex-abuse survivors, told OSV that his clients are skeptical that the reporting system “is truly independent.”
Terry McKiernan from BishopAccountability.org, a nonprofit organization that tracks clergy sex-abuse cases in the United States, raised similar concerns.
“Although I’m all in favor of the Church improving its policies and procedures, you kind of wonder whether [the bishops] are up to the task,” McKiernan said, “Particularly when it’s the bishops themselves and their own behavior that is at issue here.”
“Even if so much has already been accomplished, we must continue to learn from the bitter lessons of the past, looking with hope towards the future. This responsibility falls, above all, on the successors of the Apostles, chosen by God to be pastoral leaders of his People, and demands from them a commitment to follow closely the path of the Divine Master.”
—Vos Estis Lux Mundi
Canon law requires the archbishop to have a role in the process of the Church investigating a bishop. If a complaint is made against the archbishop, the report is sent to the most-senior bishop in the province and the nuncio.
“We wanted to be as proactive and transparent as we can possibly be at this time,” said Bishop Edgar da Cunha of Fall River, Massachusetts, who told OSV that he and the other bishops in the Boston province are aware of the mistrust facing the nation’s Catholic bishops.
Bishop da Cunha said the province’s reporting system will have “checks and balances,” including a panel of lay experts similar to diocesan review boards that examine clergy sex-abuse claims. However, under the norms adopted by the USCCB, metropolitans may be encouraged to use lay experts to investigate claims, but they are not required to do so.
Donilon told OSV that the cardinal-archbishop in Boston “may use lay experts at his discretion.” He added that the archdiocese already has a policy of immediately reporting all criminal allegations to law enforcement.
“This is not the bishops policing themselves, because we know people expect more than that,” Bishop da Cunha said. “In order for us to restore the credibility that was damaged, we must involve independent laypeople who can help us in this process.”
Brian Fraga is contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.
|Bishop accountability from Vos Estis Lux Mundi