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.

“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.

Full story at The Chicago Sun-Times.