BALTIMORE — Roman Catholic bishops in the United States voted Wednesday to launch an independent national hotline for fielding complaints of sexual abuse or cover-up involving members of the hierarchy.

Although many implementation details must be worked out, the decision is the most concrete step U.S. bishops have taken to hold themselves more accountable after a tumultuous year for the church.

The hotline is one of four proposals up for debate this week at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual spring conference. It had wide support among the prelates, although some prelates questioned the deadline approved Wednesday for activation — May 31, 2020.

“There’s an urgency to get this up and running as soon as possible,” said Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago. “Corporations that man hotlines for crisis moments are able to do it quickly, and I would hope that we would be able to do it as well.”

Votes on the three other measures were expected on Thursday. Critics say they fail to fully address gaps in the hierarchy’s past efforts to police their own conduct amid a clergy sex abuse crisis that has roiled the church for nearly two decades.

Pope Francis instituted his own reform package last month. Debate this week is focused on how to implement the pontiff’s road map in the U.S.

Here are the other proposals being considered.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks Tuesday during the organization's spring meeting in Baltimore.
Jose Luis Magana / AP
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks Tuesday during the organization's spring meeting in Baltimore.

Investigating bishop misconduct

The most significant change outlined by Francis involves the process through which bishops accused of misconduct should be investigated. Before, complaints were handled primarily through Vatican investigators, who often were criticized as sluggish and opaque.

Now, the Church has empowered “metropolitan archbishops” — prelates who lead archdioceses and supervise bishops in neighboring dioceses — to handle those probes.

Francis’ “metropolitan model” shifts power back to the hierarchy — a contrast from an idea for a civilian-led investigatory panel that the U.S. bishops floated last year. The Vatican shot down that proposal, citing concerns it usurped the pope’s ultimate authority over bishop discipline.

Debate in Baltimore this week has focused on whether the prelates can or should codify some role for lay Catholics in the process. As it stands, the proposal bishops will vote on Thursday “highly encourages” but does not require the metropolitan to involve civilians in their probes.

“Not involving laity with competence and expertise in leading the review process would signal a continuation of a culture of self-preservation that would suggest complicity," said Francisco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board, a civilian advisory panel for the bishops’ conference.

Cupich suggested Tuesday that the U.S. bishops should establish offices staffed by lay advisers to assist in investigations of bishop misconduct.

But victims’ groups, many of which have gathered outside the waterfront hotel where the bishops are meeting, say they long ago lost faith in any process that involves bishops investigating each other.

“Any reform that leaves the ultimate authority for investigating abuse and cover-up in the hands of church officials … is no reform at all,” the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said in a statement.

Becky Ianni, center, a victim of priest abuse and board member for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), holds a picture of her younger self along with other demonstrators outside the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spring assembly Tuesday in Baltimore.
Jose Luis Magana / AP
Becky Ianni, center, a victim of priest abuse and board member for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), holds a picture of her younger self along with other demonstrators outside the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spring assembly Tuesday in Baltimore.

A new code of conduct

U.S. bishops adopted a “zero tolerance” policy for priests found to have abused minors in 2002, during their first major effort to respond to the clergy sex abuse crisis. But they failed to apply the same rules to themselves, or enact any system for holding themselves accountable for cracking down on problem priests.

The thinking, they said at the time, was that under church law, bishops are granted relative autonomy within their dioceses and are answerable only to Rome.

A new code of conduct up for consideration this week won’t change that, but Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, archbishop of Newark, said he hoped proposed guidelines on bishop conduct would carry “moral weight” even if they have no legal heft.

“We, the bishops of the United States, have heard the anger expressed by so many within and outside of the church over these failures,” the proposed code reads. “The anger is justified; it has humbled us … and we will continue to listen.”

A preliminary version of the document calls on the bishops to hold themselves the same standards implemented 17 years ago for priests. But questions have emerged over how that would work, given that the 2002 reforms require abuse allegations to be investigated by civilian review panels — a provision at odds with Francis’ metropolitan model.

Bishops participate in a morning prayer Tuesday at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spring meeting in Baltimore.
Jose Luis Magana / AP
Bishops participate in a morning prayer Tuesday at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spring meeting in Baltimore.

Restrictions for disgraced retirees

Amid efforts to appear more responsive to outrage over the abuse crisis, several U.S. bishops have been forced to confront abuse or inaction involving predecessors still active in their dioceses.

For instance, Bishop Joseph Hart, formerly of Cheyenne, Wyo., continued to celebrate Mass and make public appearances for years after retirement despite multiple allegations that he abused minors there and in his previous posting in Kansas City, Mo.

Robert Finn — retired bishop of Kansas City and the only U.S. prelate criminally convicted of failing to adequately respond to abuse complaints — raised eyebrows Wednesday as he mingled with the crowd at the conference focused on ending the church’s record of cover-up.

Up for debate this week are guidelines restricting the role of retired bishops who have fallen into disgrace.

Only one element of the proposal is new — a measure that would allow the president of the U.S. conference to ban problem retirees from future meetings. The remaining remedies have been in place and have been used to limit prelates like Hart from continued contact with the public.

They allow a disgraced bishop’s successor, in consultation with the Vatican, to sanction his predecessor, limit his ministry, bar him from representing his former diocese in public, and, if warranted, prevent him from being buried in his former diocese’s cathedral.

The guidelines acknowledge that even disgraced bishops are entitled to food, housing, and health benefits throughout retirement under church law.