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Archdiocese to set up reporting system for abuse by top church officials

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff)

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley is launching a system designed to allow people to report misconduct by top officials in the Archdiocese of Boston, saying that he didn’t want to wait for bishops to act on a national level.

O’Malley’s announcement came two weeks after the reporting issue emerged as a major concern at a Vatican summit on clergy sex abuse.

“A dominant theme at the meeting was the need for an effective reporting mechanism when a bishop or cardinal has failed in his duty to protect children or has himself abused children or vulnerable adults,” O’Malley said in a Lenten message to Catholics released Friday.

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“Although I believe an effective set of procedures will be developed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I nonetheless wish to address this need immediately for the Archdiocese of Boston,” he wrote.

O’Malley said the system, called EthicsPoint and made by an Oregon company, will include a hot line and an online portal for people to confidentially and anonymously report a cardinal, bishop, or auxiliary bishop who committed abuse or failed to protect people from abuse.

The system will be hosted on secure servers that are not connected to the archdiocese’s computer networks, he said.

Reports will then be sent to the Independent Review Board, an O’Malley-appointed panel of social workers, psychologists, and retired law enforcement officials who must “immediately notify law enforcement for claims of abuse as well as the apostolic nuncio,” Pope Francis’ representative in Washington, O’Malley said.

O’Malley’s action comes after the US bishops had talked about launching such a system nationwide before the Vatican intervened in November, delaying accountability measures.

“O’Malley is basically saying he doesn’t want to wait,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior analyst at Religion News Service. “He’s just going to do this himself in his own diocese and lead the way.”

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The archdiocese has used an EthicsPoint system since 2011 to allow reporting of financial improprieties, O’Malley said.

In January, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore launched EthicsPoint to allow people in his archdiocese to report sexual misconduct by top church officials.

Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks abuse claims against church officials, said such systems could be constructive, as long as law enforcement is informed of every potential abuse case.

If not, the reports will enter a “closed system,” she said, “and we know that self-policing, by and large, fails in the Catholic hierarchy.”

O’Malley’s move comes after he acknowledged last August that his office mishandled a letter it received in 2015 containing allegations against Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington who was removed from the ministry last summer after reports that he had sexually assaulted minors and abused seminarians.

O’Malley said he never read the letter that was sent to him by the Rev. Boniface Ramsey, a priest in New York. Instead, the Rev. Robert Kickham, O’Malley’s priest secretary, handled the complaint. He sent a letter back to Ramsey advising him that the Vatican panel on clergy abuse that O’Malley leads handles policy matters, not individual cases.

O’Malley apologized for not reviewing the letter himself.

“In retrospect it is now clear to Fr. Kickham and to me that I should have seen that letter precisely because it made assertions about the behavior of an archbishop in the church,” O’Malley wrote in August.

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Doyle said such sloppy reporting procedures seem to have been an intentional safeguard for church officials like O’Malley, allowing them to maintain plausible deniability about allegations against fellow church leaders.

O’Malley’s move to tighten the reporting system now could help address such concerns, said Tom Roberts, executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter.

“To me, this is a really concrete step in saying to people we are going to be independent and we want you to report this stuff because we realize how damaging it is to everyone involved — to children, and, ultimately, the church,” Roberts said.

O’Malley said in his message it was clear from survivors and others who attended the recent Vatican summit that a “meaningful and effective response from the Church is long overdue and of critical importance.”

“The crisis of sexual abuse by clergy is the greatest failure of the Church in my lifetime,” he wrote. “It has eroded our moral authority, it endangers our pastoral, social and educational ministry, but worst of all, it devastates children and families.”

O’Malley said the Boston archdiocese would continue its efforts to provide pastoral care and counseling for survivors; carry out programs of prevention and education in schools and parishes; continue to do background checks annually for bishops, priests, all archdiocesan personnel, and all volunteers who work with children and young people.

He concluded by emphasizing that “we are firmly committed to zero tolerance, transparency, and accountability, at all times holding survivors as the priority, always being vigilant to do all possible to prevent any harm to children.”

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The archdiocese says that although the system for reporting abuse by bishops is new, victims abused by priests have, since 2002, been able to report those cases to the Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach. The archdiocese says it relays those reports immediately to law enforcement, removes the accused priest pending the outcome of its investigation, and seeks to work with victims, among other steps.

The web address and hot line number have not been announced yet. O’Malley said he plans to launch the system soon.


Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson
@globe.com. Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.