The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops took up measures last week to address how the church handles sexual misconduct allegations when they are made against a bishop.

The bishops, who met in Baltimore, Md., June 11-13, 2019, were called to the task by Pope Francis by a new church law issued in May, requiring all Catholic priests and nuns worldwide to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities, and outlining procedures to investigate cases when the accused is a bishop, cardinal or religious superior.

Diane Clay, director of communications for the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, said reporting procedures already were in place for allegations against priests, but the conference last week sought to address gaps in reporting guidelines revealed by the case of disgraced former Washington archbishop and former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Pope Francis accepted McCarrick's resignation last summer amid sexual misconduct allegations, and McCarrick was laicized — commonly referred to as being "defrocked" — in February after the Vatican found him guilty of sexually abusing seminary students and children over a period of decades.

Clay said abuse allegations involving priests have long been governed by the U.S. Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted by the bishops' conference in 2002. But, Clay said, that governing document "did not specifically mention what needed to happen if an allegation was reported regarding a bishop."

Reporting of allegations against clerics flows through metropolitans — a governing structure that groups Catholic diocese and their bishops under the authority of an archbishop. Archbishop Paul Coakley, of Oklahoma City, also oversees Bishop David Konderla, of the Diocese of Tulsa and Eastern Oklahoma, and Bishop Anthony Basil Taylor, of the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark.

With reports flowing through the metropolitan, Clay said people could feel "there really isn't anyone else in the diocese to go to" if the accused is a bishop or metropolitan archbishop.

To address that concern, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) last week adopted several measures, including: a zero-tolerance stance on sexual abuse within the church, at all levels; requiring bishops to be held to the same standards of conduct and reporting requirements as priests; and creating a third-party reporting system to make confidential reports of abuse complaints against bishops.

According to Catholic News Service, the third-party reporting system, which would be operated by an outside vendor contracted by USCCB, should be operational no later than May 31, 2020.

Clay said the new measure will ensure people have a way to report sexual abuse allegations against clerics "if they feel like it would cause them problems if they reported it through the normal procedures."

The new guidelines involving bishops strengthen the already-enacted guidelines for Catholic priests, lay leaders, teachers and volunteers, Clay said.

"What we have in place now will continue, and this is an additional step for bishops," she said.

What's already in place includes Safe Environment Training, adopted for all U.S. dioceses through the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which requires training for anyone who has access to minors on warning signs for abuse, how to prevent it, and mandatory reporting procedures.

Clay said those guidelines were strengthened in 2014, and all who were certified prior to that currently are being retrained.

"We are improving that and enhancing it," Clay said. "That should always be a process that's reviewed, to look at best practices and whether it's being handled properly."

Dave Crenshaw, director of communications for the Diocese of Tulsa and Eastern Oklahoma, said the guidelines passed last week improve the protections and reporting requirements already in place since 2002.

"We at the Diocese of Tulsa and Eastern Oklahoma are greatly encouraged by the measures passed, with overwhelming majorities, by the U.S. bishops at their annual spring assembly," Crenshaw wrote in an email to the News & Eagle. "The Diocese is committed to the safety of our people, children and adults alike. We believe that these new measures, which expand those of the 2002 U.S. Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People to include bishops and their equivalents, will provide additional layers of protection."

In the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, anyone can report past or present abuse through the Abuse of Minors Pastoral Response Hotline at (405) 720-9878. In the Diocese of Tulsa and Eastern Oklahoma, reports can be made to the diocesan chancery at (918) 294-1904 or at the pastoral response hotline at (918) 307-4970.

Calling a pastoral hotline does not relieve individuals of their obligation under Oklahoma law to report to civil authorities any incident or suspicion of sexual abuse of a minor. Oklahoma Department of Human Services has established a statewide abuse reporting hotline at (800) 522-3511, and any case involving a child in imminent danger can be reported to 911.

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com. He can be reached at jneal@enidnews.com.

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I am a retired Naval Officer and small business owner, outside of my work at the News & Eagle. My wife Tammy and I enjoy serving together at church and attending Gaslight and ESO. We have two daughters, three dogs and little free time.