That forecast came Wednesday from Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as the bishops concluded a three-day national assembly. The early start-up date would require all of the nearly 200 dioceses to be ready; church officials sounded optimistic that would happen.
The closing session also featured a blistering denunciation of the Trump administration's tough policies for asylum seekers trying to enter the U.S. via Mexico. Anna Marie Gallagher, head of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, assailed the policies as cruel and illegal.
The abuse-reporting hotline, to be operated by a private company, was approved by the bishops in June in response to a new wave of damaging developments in the church's long-running clergy sex abuse crisis. The bishops had previously established a reporting system covering abusive priests and deacons that did not extend into their own ranks.
Picarello said the committee assigned to develop the new system obtained bids from three companies, and subsequently signed a two-year contract with Convercent, a Denver-based firm which describes itself as expert in the field of corporate ethics and compliance.
The Vatican has set May 31 as the global deadline for new anti-abuse measures that encompass Catholic bishops. However, Picarello said the U.S. reporting system could be operating by the end of February.
Several bishops questioned Picarello about the next steps in the process. He replied that each diocese could decide how to publicize the toll-free number that will be created for people to make reports.
He assured the bishops that frivolous complaints - as well as calls not related to alleged sexual misconduct - would be diverted before triggering any investigation.
"We want to make sure the system is reserved for these very high priority matters," Picarello said.
James Rogers, chief communications officer for the bishops' conference, said the USCCB would be providing dioceses with some basic advice - for example, spreading the message that people should call law enforcement agencies as well as the new hotline if they are seeking to report potentially criminal misconduct.
Bishops did not discuss the cost of the system during Wednesday's public session. When it was proposed in June, the start-up cost had been estimated at $30,000 and the annual operating cost at $50,000.
The highlight of the assembly was Tuesday's election of Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez as the conference's first Hispanic president. An immigrant from Mexico, he said one of his top priorities would be to seek an overhaul of immigration laws that would be more welcoming to migrants.
His message was amplified by Gallagher, who has practiced immigration and refugee law in the U.S., Central America and Europe.
In all her travels, she told the bishops, she had never seen "the misery and desperation" experienced by asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"More than 60,000 men, women and children are being forced by this administration to wait for months in Mexico before they can ask for asylum," she said. "They face dangers every day while they wait... Some are sleeping on sidewalks with their children."
The administration's refusal to let them into the U.S. without delay "is violating international and U.S. law," she said.
The bishops also heard a presentation from Sister Donna Markham, president of Catholic Charities USA, about a new initiative to ease the nationwide problem of chronic homelessness. She said pilot programs are under way in Detroit; St. Louis; Las Vegas; Portland, Oregon, and Spokane, Washington, with a goal of reducing homelessness by 20% over five years.
One feature of the programs: They endeavor to transform vacant church property into sites that can provide shelter and services.
The bishops also heard an update on an initiative to combat racism in the U.S.
Bishop Shelton Fabre of Louisiana's Houma-Thibodaux diocese, said the initiative has included efforts to boost anti-racism teaching in Catholic schools, the publication of an anti-racism children's book, and "listening sessions" held in various dioceses around the country.
At these sessions, Fabre said, "some people have shared painful experiences that to that point they had only shared with God."
Crary reported from New York
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