Big journalism question: Would new U.S. bishops hotline have nabbed 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick?

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I have talked to quite a few Catholics in the past year — laypeople and journalists, mainly — and I have read quite a bit of commentary by Catholic clergy and other insiders.

There are two questions that I keep running into over and over. Both are relevant in light of the vote by U.S. Catholic bishops to create a third-party anonymous hotline that will handle accusations of misconduct by bishops, archbishops and cardinals. Here is a Crux summary of that:

The reporting system will be managed by an independent body that will receive complaints that will be reported to the metropolitan (or regional) archbishop who, in accordance with Pope Francis’s new ‘motu proprio’, Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”), is responsible for investigating claims against bishops.

Vos estis requires that local bishops’ conferences must establish a “public, stable and easily accessible” system for submitting abuse claims and also that the reports are sent to the metropolitans (or their senior suffragans if the report is against the metropolitan). In the United States, there are 32 territorial archdioceses (or metropolitans).

Here is the lede on the Washington Post story about that vote, which includes a blunt paraphrase of one possible implications of this decision, in terms of enforcement:

The U.S. Catholic bishops voted … 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.

Hold that thought.

This brings me back to the two questions that have haunted me over the past year. (1) Would abuse accusations against former cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick have reached the public without the existence of the Lay Review Board in the Archdiocese of New York? (2) Would the New York Times have published its bombshell stories about McCarrick — one of the most powerful U.S. Catholics ever, in terms of media clout — without the knowledge that this Lay Review Board existed and could report its findings?

The bottom line: Why is the involvement of laypeople such an important factor in the McCarrick story?

You can hints at the top of this Times report last October, about another case: “New York Bishop Is Accused of Sexual Abuse.”

An auxiliary Catholic bishop in New York, John Jenik, has been accused of sexual abuse and removed from his public ministry, Catholic officials said, the latest scandal to hit an institution already reeling from revelations of inappropriate behavior by its clergy around the globe.

“Although the alleged incidents occurred decades ago, the Lay Review Board has concluded that the evidence is sufficient to find the allegation credible and substantiated,” Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said in a statement on Wednesday.

The allegation involves an inappropriate relationship with a teenage boy in the 1980s, according to the accuser and his lawyer. Bishop Jenik, 74, denied the allegation, which will be investigated by the Vatican.

The Lay Review Board handled the accusations. The Vatican then gets to investigate, since bishops — ultimately — work for the Vatican. But Catholics were able to hear about the accusations because of the Lay Review Board and media reports about its actions? That would certainly appear to be the case.

What about the McCarrick scandal?

You have to read between the lines to find the role of the Law Review Board in the Times report last June that ran with this headline: “American Cardinal Accused of Sexually Abusing Minor Is Removed From Ministry.” And here is the July 16 Times headline that started the media storm that, to some degree, continues to this day: “He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal.

Read carefully this large chunk of that report:

Bishop McCarrick went on to climb the ranks of the Roman Catholic hierarchy — from head of the small Diocese of Metuchen to archbishop of Newark and then archbishop of Washington, where he was made a cardinal. He remained into his 80s one of the most recognized American cardinals on the global stage, a Washington power broker who participated in funeral masses for political luminaries like Edward M. Kennedy, the longtime Massachusetts senator, and Beau Biden, the son of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Suddenly, last month, Cardinal McCarrick was removed from ministry, after the Archdiocese of New York deemed credible an accusation that he had molested a 16-year-old altar boy nearly 50 years ago.

Cardinal McCarrick, now 88, who declined to comment for this article, said in a statement last month that he had no recollection of the abuse. He is the highest-ranking Catholic official in the United States to be removed for sexual abuse of a minor.

But while the church responded quickly to the allegation that Cardinal McCarrick had abused a child, some church officials knew for decades that the cardinal had been accused of sexually harassing and inappropriately touching adults, according to interviews and documents obtained by The New York Times.

The key statement, of course, is this: “ … Cardinal McCarrick was removed from ministry, after the Archdiocese of New York deemed credible an accusation that he had molested a 16-year-old altar boy. …”

Once again, that information seems to point directly to the Lay Review Board. (If there is a news report that makes that link explicit, I have missed it. I would be glad to have a URL for that information.)

That brings us to this long, long — but essential — chunk of background material in the current Washington Post report mentioned earlier. The first reference to a “plan” is the new anonymous hotline:

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.

Yes, there’s more:

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.

Reporters who have been covering this story for a few years know, of course, that there are important issues — in theology and canon law — looming over discussions of laity being involved in discipline systems involving the episcopate.

That’s true. But people in Catholic pews, at Catholic altars and studying in Catholic seminaries still have to be thinking: Would this new hotline system have started the dominos falling in a case involving a prince of the church with as much ecclesiastical and media clout as McCarrick?

Stay tuned. You know that this issue isn’t going to go away.

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