Pope Francis Issues First Rules for Catholic Church Officials Worldwide to Report Clergy Sexual Abuse

The pope in Vatican City this month. The new procedures say church leaders must investigate abuse and cover-ups and must not interfere with secular inquiries.
Credit: Filippo Monteforte/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Pope Francis on Thursday issued the first law obligating officials in the Roman Catholic Church worldwide to report cases of clergy sexual abuse — and attempts to cover it up — to their superiors. The decree was Francis’ long-anticipated concrete response to address a crisis that has devastated the church and clouded his legacy.

Vatican officials said the pope was trying to enshrine accountability for bishops into church law. Until now, responses to accusations of sexual abuse have differed widely from country to country, and even from diocese to diocese. In some countries where church officials have denied the existence of abuse, there have often been no procedures at all.

The new law does not universally require church officials to report abuse accusations to the police and prosecutors, a decision that was immediately criticized by abuse survivors and their advocates. Vatican officials have argued that a global requirement to report to civil authorities would, in some places, result in victims being ostracized or priests being persecuted. However, the new rules say that church officials should not interfere with investigations by civil authorities.

Significant measures in the new law say that accusers and whistle-blowers are to be protected from retribution; qualified laypeople can assist church officials in their investigations; and initial investigations of abuse cases must be completed within 90 days, speeding up the current process drastically.

Francis’ decree gives church dioceses a year to establish offices and procedures to facilitate the reporting of abuse and to safeguard the privacy and reputation of the abused.

“The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord; cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims; and harm the community of the faithful,” Francis said in the law’s introduction. “It is good that procedures be universally adopted to prevent and combat these crimes that betray the trust of the faithful.”

The law is the Vatican’s most comprehensive response to a scandal that has dogged the church through more than three decades and three papacies. Scrutiny of the church has increased in the last year as some of its top prelates, including cardinals in the United States and Australia, have been publicly disgraced as abusers. As attorneys general across the United States have opened investigations into the church, many American bishops have released lists of priests accused of sexual abuse, going back decades.

The law is the result of a landmark meeting in the Vatican that Francis convened with global church leaders in February, during the scandal’s resurgence, to educate them about a scourge that many of them had denied, played down or seemed to misunderstand.

“No one in leadership is above the law,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a leading church authority on responding to sexual abuse cases. “There is no immunity.”

With his decree, Francis has tried to settle the longstanding controversy over how to investigate bishops accused of abuse or cover-ups. The decree empowers archbishops who preside over geographic regions to handle accusations against bishops in their areas.

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SOURCE: New York Times, Jason Horowitz