Pope Francis Issues Law Requiring All Catholic Priests and Nuns to Report Clergy Sexual Abuse and Cover-Up to Church Authorities

Pope Francis makes the sign of the cross during his weekly general audience, in St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, May 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope Francis issued a groundbreaking law Thursday requiring all Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-up by their superiors to church authorities, in a new effort to hold the Catholic hierarchy accountable for failing to protect their flocks.

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. And it 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. And it 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, as victims have demanded. The Vatican has long argued that different legal systems in different countries make a universal reporting law impossible, and that imposing one could endanger the church in places where Catholics are a persecuted minority. But the procedures do for the first time put into universal church law that clergy must obey civil reporting requirements where they live, and that their obligation to report to the church in no way interferes with that.

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 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. Cover-up is defined as “actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid” civil or canonical investigations.

From left, Malta’s Archbishop Charles Scicluna, Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti and Mons. Juan Ignacio Arrieta talk to journalists during a press conference to present the new sex abuse law, at the Vatican’s press room, Rome, Thursday, May 9, 2019. Pope Francis issued a groundbreaking law Thursday requiring all Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-up by their superiors to church authorities, in an important new effort to hold the Catholic hierarchy accountable for failing to protect their flocks. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, 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 sisters being sexually assaulted by priests.

But Scicluna said it obviously covered lay people as well.

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.

The law says victims can’t be forced to keep quiet, even though the investigation itself is still conducted under pontifical secret. And in a novelty, 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 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.

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Source: Religion News Service