A lay board appointed 15 years ago by the U.S. Conference of Bishops to investigate the priest sex abuse scandal is seeking to be reappointed and given the power to probe high-ranking members of the Catholic Church in the United States, according to a bombshell letter obtained by Sneed.

The nine-member panel — which included Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke; President Barack Obama’s former CIA chief and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta; powerful Washington, D.C., attorney Robert Bennett; and New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Petra Jimenez Maes — worked together last week by phone to hammer out its request, a copy of which is included below.

Burke, on behalf of the group, sent the letter to U.S. Conference of Bishops president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo on Friday.

The letter cites recent claims by a retired top Vatican official that Pope Francis himself knew about sexual misconduct allegations against the former archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, but that Francis restored him to public ministry anyway. McCarrick resigned in July after an abuse allegation lodged against him was deemed “credible.”

“We were never given the power to investigate the bishops,” Burke told Sneed. “We need to know why Washington, D.C., Archbishop McCarrick and others rose in their ecclesiastical careers when troubling facts regarding sexual abuse were known by the hierarchy which promoted them.”

“Until these bishops and cardinals admit their fault and knowledge of what was occurring and their role in it, we are not going to be able to restore trust in our Church,” Burke added.

The letter notes the lay board was “independent and impartial,” was “widely praised both inside and outside the church,” and stresses that the creation of any new lay board should be a totally independent.

However, Sneed hears Francis is the only one who could make the decision to re-appoint the old U.S. Conference of Bishops lay board — and is the only one to authorize the investigation of Bishops.

“What has been happening is awful,” said Bennett, a member of the 2004 lay board.

“In order to protect the integrity and representatives of the Holy See, it is essential the Holy See promptly create an independent lay board to investigate current allegations and report their findings to the National Review Board,” said Bennett.

“Our lay board was well recognized for independence, integrity and competence in dealing with these matters,” he said.

Here’s the full text of the letter from Burke to DiNardo, who couldn’t be reached for comment.

Dear Eminence:

I served as the Interim Chair of the National Review Board created by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which issued its report on February 27, 2004. For your convenience, I have attached the introductory pages of the report. I have been in contact with the members of that Board and we are all deeply disturbed and saddened by the recent reports that sexual abuse by the clergy and its alleged cover-up has reached into the hierarchy of the Church.

The purpose of this letter is to offer the services of the members of that Board to assist the Church in dealing with the very serious crisis that it is currently facing.

Our Board, which performed its work under the auspices of Bishop Wilton Gregory, was independent and impartial and was widely praised both inside and outside the Church. We believe that our report to the Bishop’s Conference was well received and that the Charter that resulted from our work has been helpful. Indeed, it is undisputed that as a result of our report to the Conference, children and young people are safer today than in the past. Policies, practices and procedures, and reporting requirements are in place which have been very effective in accomplishing our goals to protect children and young people.

We believe that an “Independent Inquiry Board” comprised entirely of lay people should be convened.

The focus of the new inquiry and resulting report should be on the following:

1. The failure of the Church to adequately resolve cases of sexual abuse that pre-date the charter in an effective way.

2. The basic flaw in the Charter which has always exempted the bishops from the process.

3. The fundamental need to answer the question as to how Archbishop McCarrick and others rose in their ecclesiastical careers when troubling facts regarding sexual abuse were known by the hierarchy which promoted them.

In order to restore confidence in the Church and the hierarchy, we strongly recommend that you request the Holy See to appoint the members of our Board to investigate and report to the Holy See on the allegations in this evolving crisis and to make recommendations to the Bishops Conference. If the Holy See should ask us, we would accept. Further, we respectfully recommend that you ask the Holy See to appoint Archbishop Charles Scicluna to consult with us and serve as our liaison with the Holy See. We offer the Church our help, knowledge, wisdom, credibility and experience in this time of great need.

Yours,

Honorable Anne M. Burke

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