NEW YORK – Lawyers and advocates for victims of clergy sex-abuse are assailing as inadequate some new steps announced by U.S. Catholic bishops to curtail the abuse scandals that have deeply shaken the church this year.
The initiatives, announced Wednesday, include developing a code of conduct for bishops regarding sexual abuse and harassment, and establishing a confidential hotline — to be run by a third party — to receive complaints of sexual misconduct by bishops, and relay such complaints to appropriate church and civil authorities.
Critics called on the bishops to go further by allowing outside investigators full access to church sex-abuse records and by supporting changes to statute-of-limitation laws so that more cases of long-ago sex abuse could be addressed in court.
"Until they allow professional investigators inside the secret archives, there will be no real transparency," said Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who has handled many sex-abuse lawsuits. "They are incapable of handling this internally."
Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied sex abuse statute of limitations, depicted the bishop's statement as "little more than words ... while they lobby against justice for the victims."
Until the bishops support major statute of limitations reforms, she said Thursday, "they are enemies of the victims and the public seeking to know the actual risk posed by their policies."
Sex-abuse scandals have beset the Catholic church worldwide for decades, but events this year have elevated the issue to crisis-level at the Vatican.
In July, Pope Francis removed U.S. church leader Theodore McCarrick as a cardinal after church investigators said an allegation that he groped a teenage altar boy in the 1970s was credible. Subsequently, several former seminarians and priests reported that they too had been abused or harassed by McCarrick as adults.
In August, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania detailed decades of abuse and cover-up in six dioceses — alleging that more than 1,000 children had been abused over the years by about 300 priests.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro expressed regret that the bishops did not endorse the grand jury's recommendations for reform, including eliminating the statute of limitations for child sex abuse.
"That is the true test to determine whether the Church has changed, and thus far, no bishop has answered the call," Shapiro said. "The time for words has passed."
The bishops did endorse "a full investigation" into the McCarrick case, "including his alleged assaults on minors, priests, and seminarians, as well any responses made to those allegations."
"Such an investigation should rely upon lay experts in relevant fields, such as law enforcement and social services," said the statement, issued by the administrative committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It made no mention of the bishops' earlier request for a Vatican role in investigating McCarrick.
More broadly, the bishops expressed remorse for the abuse scandals and pledged support for victims.
"Some bishops, by their actions or their failures to act, have caused great harm to both individuals and the Church as a whole," the statement said. "For this, we again ask forgiveness from both the Lord and those who have been harmed."
The bishops described their proposed steps as "only a beginning."
"Consultation with a broad range of concerned parents, experts, and other laity along with clergy and religious will yield additional, specific measures to be taken to repair the scandal and restore justice," they said.
Conservative Catholic activist Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute called the bishops' proposals "a good first step" but faulted them for not reinforcing their apology with "public acts of reparation."
Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who has represented many hundreds of clergy sex abuse victims since the 1990s, described Wednesday's statement as "insincere."
"If they were truly interested in prevention and helping victims heal, they would release all documents in their possession concerning clergy sexual abuse," he said. "They would announce they would not oppose amendments to statutes of limitation."
The bishops' reference to working with lay experts encouraged John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a Washington-based clergy network,
"Some of these proposals could have been adopted years ago and possibly prevented abuses, but it's good to see the conference moving from expressions of shame to action steps," Gehring said. "Bishops can't police themselves. There seems to be a growing acknowledgment that to get this right, we need agents of accountability from outside the institution."
The Catholic Archdiocese of New York provided evidence of that approach on Thursday, announcing that it has hired a former federal judge, Barbara Jones, to review its procedures and protocols for handling allegations of sexual abuse. Cardinal Timothy Dolan said he ordered the review because Catholics in New York have demanded "accountability, transparency" and "action" from church leadership.
David Clohessy, former director of SNAP — a network of clergy-abuse survivors — was skeptical of both the bishops' statement and Dolan's announcement.
"Until secular authorities start charging, convicting and jailing bishops who enable abuse, little or nothing will change, especially if Catholic officials keep claiming they can handle these crimes and cover ups internally," he said.