Pope Francis issued a new canon law requiring all Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report clergy sexual abuse and coverups by their superiors to church authorities, in a groundbreaking new effort to hold the Catholic hierarchy accountable for failing to protect their flocks.
The church law published Thursday provides whistleblower protections for anyone making a report and requires all dioceses 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 coverup scandal that has devastated the credibility of the Catholic hierarchy and his own papacy. It also provides a new legal framework for U.S. bishops to use as they prepare to adopt accountability measures next month to respond to the scandal there.
“People must know that bishops are at the service of the people,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s longtime sex crimes prosecutor. “They are not above the law, and if they do wrong, they must be reported.”
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 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 their obligation to report to the church in no way interferes with that.
Law can be applied retroactively
The law goes into effect June 1 for an initial three years. Dioceses must establish the reporting system and confirm it is in place to the local Vatican embassy by June 1, 2020.
If it is implemented fully, the Vatican could well see an avalanche of abuse and coverup 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 coverup — 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 covering up abuse or negligence if they fail to implement the provisions or retaliate against priests and nuns who make reports against them.
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.
Coverup is defined as “actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid” civil or canonical investigations.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican’s bishops office, 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, including by The Associated Press and the Vatican’s own women’s magazine, of nuns being sexually assaulted by priests.
But Scicluna said it obviously covered lay people as well.
Victims reporting abuse must be supported, pope mandates
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.
The law says victims can’t be forced to keep quiet, even though the investigation itself is still conducted under pontifical secret. The law requires that if victims request it, they must be informed of the outcome of the investigation — again a response to longstanding complaints that victims are kept in the dark about how their claims were handled.
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 create an accessible, confidential reporting system to receive claims of sexual abuse and coverup. The other key element is outlining how preliminary investigations are carried out when the accused predator is a member of the hierarchy.
The new procedures call for any claim of sexual misconduct or coverup against a bishop, religious superior or eastern rite patriarch be reported to the Holy See and the metropolitan bishop responsible for the geographic area involved.
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. Extensions are possible.
Victims and their advocates have long complained that bishops and religious superiors have escaped justice for having engaged in sexual misconduct themselves, or have failed to protect their flocks from predator priests. Bishops and religious superiors are accountable only to the Pope, and only a handful have been sanctioned or removed because particularly egregious misbehaviour became public.
This story originally appeared on CBC