National Review Board calls for lay investigation of all misconduct claims

Cardinals biretta Credit Bohumil Petrik CNA Cardinal's biretta. | Bohumil Petrik / CNA.

The body charged with advising the U.S. bishops on sexual abuse prevention has called for an independent lay-led investigation into all allegations of sexual misconduct in the Church and for revisions of the Dallas Charter.

The National Review Board (NRB), which is constituted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), issued the call in a sternly worded statement Aug. 28, in which it condemned a "culture of silence" in the Church hierarchy.

In a press release circulated by the U.S. bishops' conference, the board, which is entirely composed of lay experts from different fields, said that they have been raising concerns about episcopal complacency "for several years" and called for specific reforms.

"The revelations of horrific incidents of abuse in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, along with the abuse perpetrated by Archbishop McCarrick point to a systemic problem within the Church that can no longer be ignored or tolerated by the episcopacy in the United States," the statement read.

The board was constituted in June 2002 as part of the U.S. bishops' response to the wave of clerical sexual abuse scandals which were revealed in the Boston Globe. The 13-member panel makes its recommendations to the USCCB's Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People.

The board noted that, in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals of the early 2000s, new policies and procedures had been put in place – including the creation of the NRB itself. These, the board said, resulted in a "significant decrease" of incidents of abuse, but clearly underlying problems remain unaddressed.

"The National Review Board has for several years expressed its concern that bishops not become complacent in their response to sexual abuse by the clergy. The recent revelations make it clear that the problem is much deeper. We are saddened, angry, and hurt by what we have learned in the past few weeks."

The statement said that "the evil of crimes that have been perpetuated" reach the "highest levels of the hierarchy," and cannot be simply addressed with procedural and structural changes. The board called for a "genuine change in the Church's culture," and singled out the bishops as particularly in need of change, noting that it was not just minors who were the victims of abuse.

"This evil has resulted from a loss of moral leadership and an abuse of power that led to a culture of silence that enabled these incidents to occur. Intimidation, fear, and the misuse of authority created an environment that was taken advantage of by clerics, including bishops, causing harm to minors, seminarians, and those most vulnerable."

A central critique of the Church hierarchy was a "culture of silence" which, the NRB said, led to abuse running "virtually unchecked." The need to hold bishops accountable required, according to the statement, an "independent review into the actions of a bishop" following any allegation and this could only be ensured by entrusting it to laity.

"The NRB, composed exclusively of lay members, would be the logical group to be involved in this task," the statement observed.

The board recommended the creation of an anonymous whistleblower policy, mirroring some corporate and public sector structures, which would provide a clear, lay-led mechanism for reporting an allegation to the competent bishop, Vatican authorities, and civil law enforcement.

Existing policies should also be revised, the board said, including the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. While calling the document "helpful," the NRB said it was a "living document" that needed continual revision in the light of experience – most notably its "deliberate ambiguity and its lack of inclusion of bishops."

Currently, there is no clear USCCB mechanism or policy for handling abuse beyond a document called the Episcopal Commitment, which the bishops have agreed to abide by – though this document has no binding force.

The board's recommendations called this document "ineffective" and said there need to be "concrete steps" for fraternal correction when a bishop is accused of either abuse or failure to respond to an accusation. At the same time, it said, there needs to be clear formation of new bishops on their responsibility as "moral leaders" in responding to accusations, saying that such leadership is currently lacking.

"We recognize that the overwhelming majority of our current bishops have, and continue to, take the sexual abuse of minors seriously and who act accordingly by adhering to the Charter, some even going beyond these basic requirements. However, every time one bishop fails to act, the entire episcopate is tainted."

The statement ended by saying the Nation Review Board would consider making further recommendations in the coming weeks, and would continue to work with the USCCB.

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"It is time for the laity to assume courageous leadership to help the Church respond and to heal and for the bishops to listen carefully to our recommendations."   

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