NEW YORK — The umbrella organization of Catholic religious orders in the U.S. is suggesting that its members consider voluntarily identifying priests accused of sexual abuse, opening up what could be a major new chapter in the Catholic Church’s long-running abuse and cover-up saga, The Associated Press has learned.

The invitation to transparency by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, which represents about a third of the 37,000 Catholic priests in the U.S., is significant because religious orders such as the Franciscans and Benedictines have largely flown under the radar over two decades of a scandal in the U.S. that has focused on abuse by diocesan priests and cover-up by their bishops.

Anticipating that the spotlight will shift amid new investigations in a dozen U.S. states, the conference will formally invite its 120 member orders to consider voluntarily publishing the names of men with an “established allegation” against them, said Father Gerard McGlone, who is responsible for child protection at the conference.

“This will be coming shortly,” he told AP, confirming what he told a panel discussion at Georgetown University this week.

The conference cannot require or even formally recommend that religious institutes release names. But the invitation to do so is nevertheless significant, since the organization’s mission is to be a resource of best practices for its members.

The conference represents more than 16,000 priests and brothers of religious congregations like the Salesians, Jesuits and Christian Brothers, who are known for their work running schools and providing services to the poor and vulnerable. Around the world, members of religious orders have been implicated in large numbers in the abuse scandal, precisely because they have had greatest access to potential young victims, said Terence McKiernan, co-founder of, an online resource of documentation about the scandal.

“The orders have a miserable record, but the impression in the U.S. is that they have a better record. That impression is entirely wrong,” said McKiernan, who has focused much of his research on religious orders.

While there have been a few major legal cases against congregations — the Jesuits in the northwest U.S. reached a $166 million settlement with more than 500 victims in 2011 — religious orders in general have largely “gotten a free pass,” McKiernan said. Orders are divided into provinces that cross state and diocesan lines and can fall through the cracks when dioceses are under the spotlight by law enforcement or the media, McKiernan said.

Case in point: On Friday, it was revealed that the federal prosecutor for the eastern district of Pennsylvania had written a letter to the head of the U.S. bishops’ conference instructing all U.S. dioceses to preserve their documents about abuse. But there’s no indication that the prosecutor wrote similar letters to the superiors of all the religious orders in the U.S., potentially limiting any federal investigation to diocesan abusers when religious priests and their superiors are just as complicit in the overall scandal.

Dioceses, though, are indeed back in the spotlight following the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report in August that detailed 70 years of abuse and cover-up in six dioceses, as well as accusations that the retired archbishop of Washington, ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, had sexually abused minors as well as adults.

In response to the scandal, U.S. dioceses in recent weeks have been announcing the release of names of accused priests in droves, most recently Washington D.C. and West Virginia. As many as 60 dioceses have published similar lists over the years, often forced to by litigation.

The pre-emptive step to invite religious orders to follow suit appears aimed at heading off the piecemeal drip of names that would likely be revealed in future state-by-state investigations, which like Pennsylvania are expected to expose decades of sex crimes and cover-up.

To date, the few religious orders that have released names of abusers have done so only when forced to by litigation.

While victims’ advocates have long demanded the release of names, some canon lawyers and church leaders question widescale public outing since the men, some of them dead, have no way to defend themselves. Even if eventually exonerated, their reputations are destroyed.

“Yes, you want to be transparent, but you want to be fair to all involved,” said Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist and abuse expert at Catholic University of America.