A committee created by the Catholic Church specifically to prevent sexual misconduct by clergy on Tuesday issued a damning assessment of the failings to stem the abuse, calling it an "evil" caused by "a loss of moral leadership."
The National Review Board called for an investigation led by parishioners, saying a new wave of abuse scandals point to a "systematic problem" and that the bishops themselves can't be trusted to lead an investigation.
Some survivors of clergy sex abuse said the call was a disingenuous attempt by the church to get around a true independent investigation.
The board was formed in 2002 in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal that started in the Boston Archdiocese and rocked the church globally. The committee said it was compelled to seek a lay-led investigation after recent revelations from a grand jury investigation into six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania and allegations that led to the resignation last month of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C.
The grand jury report estimated 300 Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania molested more than 1,000 children — and possibly many more — since the 1940s, and accused senior church officials, including McCarrick, of systematically covering up complaints. McCarrick formerly served the church in Pennsylvania.
"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," the board said in its statement. "The culture of silence enabled the abuse to go on virtually unchecked."
Dennis M. Doyle, a professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton in Ohio and a Catholic theologian, said the National Review Board's call would be a notable shift in the church's history of a hierarchal authority.
The call for a lay-led investigation, he said, "is an acknowledgement that the people in power can't be in charge of investigating themselves."
It also seems to take a page from a three-page letter issued a week ago by Pope Francis, who blamed the church's top-down culture for allowing the abuse to take place in a shroud of secrecy.
The pope demanded an end to "clericalism" — the culture that places priests on a pedestal. He said lay Catholics must help end that culture, since rank-and-file members of the church are often the ones who most fervently hold up their priests as beyond reproach.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also this week asked for a meeting with the pope to discuss the crisis.
The review board said the recent revelations make it clear that the crisis cannot be fixed by church hierarchy.
"What needs to happen is a genuine change in the Church's culture, specifically among the bishops themselves," it said.
Besides an investigation led by the laity, it recommended creating a whistleblower system independent of the bishops to field allegations anonymously and then report them to the local bishop, law enforcement and the Vatican.
Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and expert on religion and the law, said the review board's call doesn't go far enough to fix the crisis or prevent clergy sex abuse that has roiled the church for decades.
One of the longstanding difficulties in identifying cases has been that victims can sometimes take years before they are willing or able to step forward. In many instances, the statute of limitations prevents law enforcement from prosecuting priests in these long-ago cases.
Hamilton said it's critical that the statute of limitations be extended.
"It's time for prosecutors and lawmakers to step up regardless of what happens in the church," he said.
Tim Lennon, president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the move by the review board a weak effort that needs to go much farther. The organization wants a church-wide independent investigation into pedophile priests, such as the one conducted by the Pennsylvania grand jury.
"The church is looking every which way to have a cooperative partner so they can continue their cover-up. SNAP demands that all investigations be independent, separate, with subpoena power and testimony under oath," Lennon said. "Otherwise it is a sham and whitewash."