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At Pope Francis’ sex abuse summit, American cardinal offers plan for bishops to police each other

Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, floated a similar proposal at a meeting of U.S bishops last year. But by endorsing it from a Vatican pulpit Friday, he propelled the idea to the forefront of the church's global debate.

FILE - In this April 23, 2015 file photo, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich processes from Holy Name Cathedral following the funeral Mass of Cardinal Francis George in Chicago. The Chicago archbishop helped organize this week's Vatican summit on clergy sex abuse and, on Friday, pitched his own plan for bishops to police each other's behavior.  (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool, File)
FILE - In this April 23, 2015 file photo, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich processes from Holy Name Cathedral following the funeral Mass of Cardinal Francis George in Chicago. The Chicago archbishop helped organize this week's Vatican summit on clergy sex abuse and, on Friday, pitched his own plan for bishops to police each other's behavior. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool, File)Read moreChris Walker / AP

VATICAN CITY — The lone U.S. bishop scheduled to address Pope Francis’ global summit on clergy sex abuse on Friday called for members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to police each other’s behavior, and offered the most concrete proposal yet for dealing with prelates who mishandle abuse allegations against priests or face claims of sexual misconduct themselves.

In his speech on the conference’s second day, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago urged his colleagues to empower him and other metropolitan archbishops to investigate their colleagues in neighboring dioceses. Another authority would be appointed to do so in cases in which the archbishop himself was accused.

The recommendation stands at odds with an alternative proposition, floated last fall by bishops in the United States, to let a board led by Catholic laity investigate allegations against prelates.

“This past year has taught us that the systematic failures in holding clerics of all rank responsible are due in large measure to flaws in the way we interact and communicate with each other in the college of bishops,” Cupich said. “But they also reveal in too many cases an inadequate understanding [of] the relationship between the pope and the bishops, bishops among themselves … and the role of bishops’ conferences.”

Cupich had proposed a similar suggestion at a meeting of U.S. bishops in November, when it became clear that the Vatican and many of his colleagues were uncomfortable with the idea of investigations led by civilians outside the church’s traditional leadership structure.

But by endorsing it again Friday from a Vatican pulpit — and before an audience of more than 190 bishops and religious superiors from around the world — Cupich helped propel to the forefront his solution to the most acute problem currently vexing the hierarchy in the U.S.

While bishops from some parts of the world have spent the opening stretch of Francis’ four-day summit struggling to accept that clergy sex abuse is a problem in their nations, the U.S. and other Western countries are enduring a second wave of the crisis.

In the last year, nearly all of the scandals that have erupted in the American church — from the allegations against now defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to the Pennsylvania grand jury report that implicated the state’s bishops in decades of systematic cover-up — have been focused less on individual abusers than on the church leaders who enabled them by turning a blind eye.

McCarrick’s alleged abuse of seminarians and minors, for instance, is said to have been an open secret for years in some corners of the hierarchy before news emerged last summer that two of the four dioceses he led in his career had secretly paid settlements to his victims, leading to his suspension and ultimate laicization last week.

Like other bishops, he operated with relative impunity, answering only to the pope. They have been historically hesitant to take on the responsibility of policing each other’s conduct.

Still, Cupich said Friday that he and his colleagues cannot rely on the Holy See to “come up with all the answers.”

“We have to come to an ownership that I am responsible as a bishop but also that we are, together, as a college of bishops, responsible, too,” he said at an afternoon news conference. “What happens in one place happens to us all.”

The plan the cardinal described Friday would grant new authority to metropolitan archbishops — a title given to those prelates tasked with both leading an archdiocese and supervising bishops in nearby dioceses.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, for example, is one of 34 metropolitan archbishops in the U.S. and presides over a province that includes the seven other Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. But the role is largely an honorific title in the modern Catholic Church with no significant authority.

Under Cupich’s proposal, complaints against prelates would come to the metropolitan archbishop and the Vatican’s top diplomat in each country through “independent reporting mechanisms,” such as a toll-free hotline and a website that U.S. bishops are scheduled to launch this summer to receive complaints against prelates.

Those authorities would investigate and make ultimate recommendations to the Vatican on the action to be taken. Cupich also stressed Friday that civilian experts also should be involved to stress the transparency of the investigations. Ultimate authority still would rest with the pope.

“It’s a more regional approach," Cupich said, explaining his plan in more detail after his speech. “I feel that’s important simply because part of the follow-up is not just trying the case or doing the investigation, but offering pastoral care to the person who has been victimized.”

Despite the cardinal’s eagerness to offer specifics Friday, it remained unclear whether his ideas had gained traction — either with his audience, which remained behind closed doors as it has throughout the summit, or the abuse victims who have camped outside in St. Peter’s Square all week.

Many of those victims pointed out that McCarrick himself was the metropolitan archbishop of Washington when his accusers came forward. They questioned how this system would work with a prelate with his own problems at the helm and insisted that after years of cover-up the time for allowing the bishops to police each other was over.

Bishop Michael Bransfield, a Philadelphia native, presided for years as the top prelate in West Virginia despite concerns about his conduct with junior priests or seminarians. He left his post last fall amid an investigation into sexual harassment claims.

As for Cupich’s colleagues in the hierarchy, only a handful spoke publicly about the proposal.

“It’s an important proposal, and it needs to be studied and brought forward,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who along with Cupich is one of the organizers of this week’s conference. “We need to be together when it comes to structures of responsibility.”

Also unclear was how it would fare against other competing ideas.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo — the archbishop of Galveston-Houston, who is representing the U.S. at the summit this week as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — had hoped that he and his colleagues could vote last fall on a proposal for laity-led investigations of problem prelates.

Vatican officials ultimately waved them off making any decisions, amid concerns over the amount of authority the idea would place in the hands of those outside the hierarchy. But it was clear from that meeting in Baltimore that many of the bishops in the United States were also leery of the idea; it might not have passed even if they had been allowed to cast ballots.

Chaput, for instance, spoke in favor of Cupich’s plan in November.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, had a hand in another alternative idea early in Francis’ papacy. As a member of the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, he was part of the group that proposed a first-of-its-kind Vatican tribunal to adjudicate bishop sex-abuse issues.

Francis initially endorsed the idea, only to abandon the plan within a year amid strong resistance within his own hierarchy.

O’Malley, speaking at a news conference Friday, stopped short of endorsing Cupich’s plan outright but stressed the need for some structure to address the problem.

“We need some very clear protocols,” he said. “In the United States, it’s at the uppermost of our minds right now.”

He added later: “Transparency is really what the way forward is about. We have to confront our sinfulness and deal with it, not ignore it and sweep it under the carpet,

Cupich, Scicluna, and the conference’s other organizers have said they will remain in Rome after the summit closes Sunday to work on a plan to implement specific anti-abuse measures.