Boston’s New System for Reporting Abuse

National Catholic Register reported on what appears to be an important development in Church policy regarding its child abuse problem: “Cardinal O’Malley Introduces System for Complaints Against Boston Bishops.” Strangely, most other Catholic newspapers have failed to carry the announcement. The Church’s failure to hold bishops accountable was one of the main criticisms of Pope Francis’ recent summit on abuse. Furthermore, in addition to heading the archdiocese of Boston, one of the most important positions in the Catholic Church of America, Cardinal O’Malley is also the head of Pope Francis’ special commission on child abuse. Anything he says about child abuse policy should be major news for the Catholic press.

The opening of the article suggests major change:

The Archdiocese of Boston has announced it will implement a third-party system for reporting allegations of abuse or misconduct against bishops in the archdiocese.

Boston is the second archdiocese to announce such a system, after a proposed national reporting system for allegations against bishops was scuttled during a November 2018 meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

First, the use of a third-party system seems like a major break with past policy, which kept all reports of misconduct within the Church, and was often used to conceal crimes. Second, the article suggests that Boston will be using the kind of system that Pope Francis squelched several months earlier.

Cardinal O’Malley described the new system as “a confidential, anonymous and third-party system, exclusively for the reporting of misconduct by a cardinal, bishop or auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston.” He emphasizes that a similar system from EthicsPoint – the third party in question - has been used to report financial crimes for nearly a decade:

“Like the existing system currently in use, this will be web-based and have a toll-free hotline to make a report. Reports will be sent to members of my Independent Review Board who will be charged to immediately notify law enforcement for claims of abuse as well as the apostolic nuncio, the diplomatic representative to the U.S. of the Holy See. The system will be hosted on secured servers at the EthicsPoint facility and is not connected to the Archdiocese of Boston website.”

That is, the third party is simply providing a communications system to collect reports from a victims’ hotline and transfer them the archdiocese’s Independent Review Board, which is not described. The third party does not relay accusations to the legal authorities. That is up to the Independent Review Board, which is unlikely to be fully independent of Cardinal O’Malley and the archdiocese. As usual, the devil is in a host of undocumented details.

Much Ado about Very Little

But even without knowing the details, it is clear that the new system will be of very limited value. The system is just a supplement to the current reporting system, used only for executive misconduct. More importantly, it only involves a very limited type of misconduct. It actually ignores executive actions and misconduct.

This announcement only covers crimes of abuse directly committed by bishops, archbishops, and cardinals. The number of such crimes is small, since these executives are a very small percentage of all Church staff. Furthermore, these executives are either elderly or well into middle age – well past those years when rape is most likely. Thus Cardinal Pell was recently convicted of child abuse, but the actual crimes were committed decades earlier. The risk of senior church officials actually raping minors is very low.

This new announcement completely ignores the type of crime of greatest relevance – the covering up of crime, and even the facilitation of crime by knowingly transferring pederast priests to new parishes and unsuspecting parishioners. This latter type of crime used to be quite common, and was extensively documented.

This “major” new system does nothing to hold executives accountable for their handling of their subordinates’ misconduct, much less preventing such misconduct. But this is precisely the accountability problem that everyone has been complaining about. It is inconceivable that Cardinal O’Malley was unaware of this shortcoming. Rather than constituting a bold new advance, I interpret this new proposal as basically another example of stonewalling, and refusal to confront the central elements of the Church’s abuse crisis.


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