All 15 Catholic dioceses in Texas will release early next year the names of clergy who have been "credibly accused" of sexual abuse of a minor, Bishop Edward J. Burns of the Diocese of Dallas announced Wednesday.
Texas bishops decided last month to release the lists of names by Jan. 31, 2019, as part of their effort "to protect children from sexual abuse" while promoting "healing and a restoration of trust" in the church, the statement said.
Burns said the investigation constitutes a "major project" because it will include all 1,320 Catholic parishes in Texas. A group of retired law enforcement officers will investigate clergy files dating back to 1950.
Wednesday's announcement came a day after Burns told parishioners that his diocese has hired a team of former state and federal law enforcement officers to review the personnel files of 220 priests now serving in the diocese. An investigation will review any accusation against a priest, not just ones relating to the sexual abuse of minors. The investigation could be expanded to include those who previously served.
"Opening our files to outside investigators and releasing the names is something I have been considering for some time," Burns said in Wednesday's statement. "Since I believe it is the right thing to do, the Diocese of Dallas has had outside investigators, a team made up of former FBI, state troopers and other experts in law enforcement, examining our files since February, and they still have work to do."
Bishop Burns said Wednesday that releasing the names of clergy "credibly accused" of abuse would be a step toward rebuilding trust.
"The church is definitely in crisis there is no doubt about it," Burns said. "I owe it to the faithful of this diocese that the bishop is indeed going to be the shepard that protects them."
It's a step the Fort Worth Diocese took eleven years ago, after a group of victims came forward to sue over past abuse.
"We listened to victims and one of the things that they articulated was an experience and a frustration of not having been heard and not having been believed," said Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth.
Bishop Olson believes publicly listing those names has made a difference in Fort Worth and he welcomes dioceses across the rest of the state following suit.
"Let people know that we are serious about this in caring for victims and also in preventing future abuse," said Olson.
But Dallas attorney Tahira Merritt questions the timing and motivation. Her hallways are lined with newspaper clippings from dozens of priest abuse cases she's handled, mostly in Texas.
"It's window dressing, it's words and it's really just a ploy to prevent the attorney general or other truly independent bodies from investigating," Merritt said.
As for "credibly accused", Bishop Burns explained in a news conference Wednesday that each allegation is turned over to a law enforcement agency. A review board that consists of doctors, educators, psychologists and parents assist in looking into the credibillity of an allegation. The review board is hired by the diocese, and that's where Merritt sees a problem.
"It's kind of like the fox guarding the hen house," she said.
Merritt believes not just clergy names but their files should be released to get to the full story.
"The files themselves are evidence of the cover-up and that's what they're not producing," said Merritt.
Bishop Olson said he always encourages victims to go to police before they ever report to the church, and that his diocese cooperates with any criminal investigation before handling their own.
Bishop Burns, meanwhile said Wednesday, “I can assure you that there are no priests in any parish in this Diocese who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor.”
But there may be some known names when the investigation ends and the names are released.
“I think there will be some familiar names, and this Diocese has gone through some very difficult days, and so we are going to see some of those names repeated. I think that there may be some names that will be a surprise to people, but through it all we do have to do our work and get a comprehensive list,” said Bishop Edward Burns.
The investigation comes after Burns in August revealed a former pastor, Edmundo Paredes, was accused of abusing three boys more than a decade ago. Paredes, who is also accused of stealing church funds, has not been heard from since about March and The Dallas Morning News reported that he may have fled to the Philippines, his native country.
This week's developments also follow accusations made last week by a third person alleging a Houston-area Catholic priest, Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, sexually touched him when he was a teenager. That probe has involved Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, who's leading the American church's response to sexual abuse.
DiNardo is already accused by two other people of disregarding their reports against La Rosa-Lopez, the pastor at St. John Fisher Catholic Church in the Houston suburb of Richmond. La Rosa-Lopez was arrested in September and charged with four counts of indecency with a child.
The move this week by the 15 Texas dioceses is consistent with efforts in other states, such as California and Ohio.
But the actions of the Dallas Diocese to employ a team of former law officers to investigate its priests appear to differ from elsewhere. For instance, a Roman Catholic diocese in Connecticut announced last week it's chosen a retired state judge to lead an investigation into sexual abuse of children by priests.
The recent developments follow Pope Francis' removal in July of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for allegedly groping a teenage altar boy in the 1970s, and also the release in August of a lengthy Pennsylvania grand jury report that listed the names of more than 300 priests and outlined the details of sexual abuse allegations.
The investigation launched in Texas also differs from other states such as Maryland where that state's attorney general is delving into records of the Baltimore archdiocese . Michael Norris, who leads the Houston chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, credited Texas church leaders with taking action but called for the Texas Attorney General's Office to become involved.
"What I lack is trust," Norris said. "When I hear they're hiring a team of investigators, I prefer that it be totally independent."
The Fort Worth Diocese released a letter Wednesday explaining they were first to release names of credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. Seventeen names are on the list. Click here to see the full list.
There are 8.5 million Catholics in Texas. Anyone who has been sexually abused by clergy is encouraged to contact local law enforcement or call the Texas Abuse Hotline at 1-800-252-5400 or click here or contact the Diocese of Dallas Victim Assistance Coordinator, Barbara Landregan, at 214-379-2812.
NBC5's Alice Barr contributed to this report.