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Pope issues law requiring Catholic clergy members to report sex abuse - but not to police

The law declares that anyone who has knowledge of abuse is obliged to report it to the Church.

Pope Francis attends the weekly general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican on 8 May
Pope Francis attends the weekly general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican on 8 May
Image: Vandeville Eric/ABACA

POPE FRANCIS HAS issued a new law requiring all Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-up by their superiors to church authorities.

The legal document, issued under the pope’s personal authority, declares that anyone who has knowledge of abuse, or suspects it, is “obliged to report (it) promptly” to the Church.

The new church law provides whistle-blower protections for anyone making a report and requires all dioceses around the world to have a system in place to receive the claims confidentially.

It also outlines procedures for conducting preliminary investigations when the accused is a bishop, cardinal or religious superior.

It’s the latest effort by Francis to respond to the global eruption of the sex abuse and cover-up scandal that has devastated the credibility of the Catholic hierarchy and his own papacy. 

“We have said for years that priests must conform to certain strict rules, so why shouldn’t bishops and others in the hierarchy do the same?” said Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican office for bishops.

It’s not just a law, but a profound responsibility.

The law makes the world’s 415,000 Catholic priests and 660,000 religious sisters mandated reporters. That means they are required to inform church authorities when they learn or have “well-founded motives to believe” that a cleric or sister has engaged in sexual abuse of a minor, sexual misconduct with an adult, possession of child pornography — or that a superior has covered up any of those crimes.

The law doesn’t require them to report to police. The Vatican has long argued that doing so could endanger the church in places where Catholics are a persecuted minority. But it does for the first time put into universal church law that they must obey civil reporting requirements where they live, and that their obligation to report to the church in no way interferes with that.

Escaping justice 

If it is implemented fully, the Vatican could well see an avalanche of abuse and cover-up reports in the coming years. Since the law is procedural and not criminal in nature, it can be applied retroactively, meaning priests and nuns are now required to report even old cases of sexual wrongdoing and cover-ups — and enjoy whistleblower protections for doing so.

Previously such reporting was left up to the conscience of individual priests and nuns. Now it is church law. There are no punitive measures foreseen if they fail to report, and similarly, there are no sanctions foreseen if dioceses, for example, fail to comply.

But bishops and religious superiors could be accused of cover-up or negligence if they fail to implement the provisions, or retaliate against priests and nuns who make reports.

The law defines the crimes that must be reported as: performing sexual acts with a minor or vulnerable person; forcing an adult “by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts,” and the production, possession or distribution of child pornography. Cover-up is defined as “actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid” civil or canonical investigations.

Ouellet said the inclusion of sex crimes involving adults was a clear reference to cases of sexual abuse of nuns and seminarians by their superiors — a scandal that has exploded in recent months following reports.

In another legal first for the Vatican, the pope mandated that victims reporting abuse must be welcomed, listened to and supported by the hierarchy, as well as offered spiritual, medical and psychological assistance. It doesn’t mandate financial reparations, however.

But the key point of the law is to decree that the church’s own priests and nuns are mandated reporters and require every diocese around the world create an accessible, confidential reporting system to receive claims of sexual abuse and cover-up. The other key element outlines the preliminary investigation procedures to be used when the accused predator is a member of the church hierarchy.

Victims and their advocates have long complained that bishops and religious superiors have escaped justice for having engaged in sexual misconduct themselves, or failed to protect their flocks from predator priests. Bishops and religious superiors are accountable only to the pope, and only a handful have ever been sanctioned or removed for sex abuse or cover-up, and usually only after particularly egregious misbehaviour became public.

The new procedures call for any claim of sexual misconduct or cover-up against a bishop, religious superior or eastern rite patriarch to be reported to the Holy See and the metropolitan bishop, who is a regular diocesan bishop also responsible for a broader geographic area than his dioceses alone.

Unless the metropolitan bishop finds the claim “manifestly unfounded,” he must immediately ask permission from the Vatican to open a preliminary investigation and must hear back from Rome within 30 days — a remarkably fast turnaround for the lethargic Holy See. The metropolitan then has an initial 90 days to conduct the investigation, though extensions are possible.

1 June

The law makes clear he can use lay experts to help, a key provision that is already used in many dioceses to give bishops expert advice on handling cases from people with law enforcement or medical backgrounds.

Once the investigation is completed, the metropolitan sends the results to the Vatican for a decision on how to proceed. The new law effectively stops there; existing procedures are in place for further investigation and possible sanction of bishops, though legal experts have said those procedures too require an overhaul since they are far from clear or efficient.

The new law does, however, require Vatican offices to share information throughout the process, since an untold number of cases have fallen through the cracks thanks to the silo-like nature of the Holy See bureaucracy, where each congregation zealously guards its own turf and files.

The law is a clear outgrowth of years of pressure building on the Vatican to hold bishops accountable; the tipping point apparently came with the 2018 McCarrick scandal, coupled with the eruption of the abuse crisis in Chile and criminal trials against Cardinals in Australia and France.

The use of the metropolitan bishop to conduct the preliminary investigation was first publicly proposed by Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in November. Cupich elaborated on it when he addressed the February abuse summit and the procedures are likely then to form a key legal framework for U.S. bishops when they meet in Baltimore June 11-13 to adopt accountability procedures.

The law comes into effect on 1 June for an initial three years. Dioceses must establish the reporting system and confirm it is in place to the local Vatican embassy by 1 June 2020.

With reporting from AFP

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