Building a ‘culture of accountability’ for bishops

Kathleen McChesney speaks during a 2019 panel discussion titled “The Church Crisis: Where Are We Now?" at the University of Notre Dame. Photo: CNS/Barbara Johnston, University of Notre Dame Kathleen McChesney speaks during a 2019 panel discussion titled “The Church Crisis: Where Are We Now?" at the University of Notre Dame. Photo: CNS/Barbara Johnston, University of Notre Dame

A new system for reporting allegations of sexual misconduct by U.S. bishops is a step toward rebuilding trust in the church, said the laywoman charged with providing oversight of the system in Washington state.

The Catholic Bishops Abuse Reporting Service, or CBAR, became operational March 16. People can report bishops for committing, covering up or mishandling allegations of sexual abuse through a website,, or a toll-free phone number, 800-276-1562. Allegations then go through a process of review, investigation and judgment (see sidebar).

CBAR requires each geographical province (an archdiocese and several dioceses) to have a qualified layperson designated to receive reports and provide oversight for the investigations.

For the Province of Seattle, that person is Kathleen McChesney, whose background in law enforcement and as an advocate for victims of clergy sexual abuse makes her uniquely qualified for the position.

‘Tireless pursuit of justice’

McChesney, who grew up in Auburn’s Holy Family Parish, began her career as a detective with the King County Sheriff’s Office, where she investigated the serial killer Ted Bundy.

She then spent 24 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation before leaving her post as the FBI’s third-ranking official in 2002 to serve as the first executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, a position she held until 2005.

In 2008, she founded Kinsale Management Consulting, which has worked with dozens of dioceses and religious orders (including the Archdiocese of Seattle) to compile disclosure lists of clergy credibly accused of abusing minors.

This March, the University of Notre Dame announced McChesney as the recipient of the 2020 Laetare Medal, considered the most prestigious honor given to American Catholics.

The university’s president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, said the award recognizes McChesney’s “courage, tenacity and love for the church in a tireless pursuit of justice for victims, accountability for abusers and measures that prevent this crisis from continuing.”

‘Timely and transparent’

As the designated lay delegate for the Province of Seattle, McChesney told Northwest Catholic her key responsibilities and priorities in the CBAR process are “to ensure that the proper notifications and necessary investigations related to [each] report are conducted in a timely and transparent manner” and “to confirm that pastoral support is offered to persons who have been abused and that minors and vulnerable adults are not at risk of future abuse.”

McChesney pointed to “several significant aspects of the CBAR process” that should give Catholics confidence that allegations will be handled appropriately, starting with the use of a third-party reporting system.

“The designation of a qualified layperson ‘delegate’ to receive allegations against bishops will provide a layer of oversight that will further ensure that all allegations are promptly and professionally responded to and documented,” she added.

And people who make reports will be given a case number and password so they can follow, “at every stage of the process, what steps are being taken to address their report.”

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has also established “a mechanism for addressing these allegations in a timely manner,” McChesney said.

Regaining, maintaining trust

While it has always been possible to report allegations against bishops directly to the Holy See or through the apostolic nuncio, McChesney said, most Catholics didn’t know that, “as there was no formalized process for doing so.”

“Survivor groups and advocates have been calling for a formal and transparent system to hold bishops accountable” since the U.S. bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, in 2002, she said.

“The notorious case involving accusations of sexual abuse against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the publication of the Pennsylvania grand jury report [in 2018] highlighted the need for a formal, transparent process for these particular types of allegations,” McChesney said.

The creation of CBAR is one piece of the work that needs to be done to repair the damage caused by the sex abuse scandal in the church.

“To a degree, trust in the church, as an institution, has been lost and needs to be addressed,” she said. “To regain and maintain that trust, the people within the church, particularly its leaders, must operate with greater transparency.”

“Becoming a trustworthy organization is not a one-time goal,” she said; rather, it “requires continuous commitment and effort shaped by a culture of accountability.”

CBAR: How does it work?

• Calls come into a central phone bank, where trained personnel ask for information about the allegation. People can also file reports online and may remain anonymous.

• The information is forwarded to the appropriate “metropolitan,” or archbishop, responsible for each diocese in a province. Allegations against a metropolitan are forwarded to the senior suffragan bishop in the province. The U.S. has 32 metropolitans. Archbishop Paul D. Etienne is the metropolitan of the province that includes the dioceses of Seattle, Spokane and Yakima. Bishop Joseph Tyson of Yakima is the senior suffragan bishop of the province.

• The information also is forwarded to a layperson designated to assist the bishop.

• After review, the metropolitan or senior suffragan sends the report to the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C.

• The nuncio sends the report and the metropolitan’s assessment to the Vatican, which has 30 days to determine if a formal investigation is warranted. If so, a bishop is authorized to oversee an investigation.

• When an investigation is ordered, it is conducted by qualified experts, including laypeople. An investigation is to be completed within 90 days and forwarded to the Vatican.

• Vatican officials review the findings of the investigation and determine the appropriate process leading to a final judgment.

For more on CBAR, visit

Catholic News Service

Read the Spanish version of this story.

Northwest Catholic - May 2020

Kevin Birnbaum

Kevin Birnbaum is the editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at

Kevin Birnbaum es el editor de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic y miembro de la Parroquia del Sagrado Sacramento en Seattle. Pueden contactarle en: