World

Pope issues new canon law requiring priests, nuns to report clergy sex abuse and coverups

Pope Francis issues 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.

Law offers protections for whistleblowers, but doesn't require them to report to police

Pope Francis has issued a new canon law in a groundbreaking effort to hold the Catholic hierarchy accountable for failing to protect victims of abuse. (Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press)

Pope Francis has 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.

Abuse victims and their advocates said the law was a step forward, but not enough since it doesn't require the crimes to be reported to police and essentially tasks discredited bishops who have mishandled abuse for decades with policing their own.

The move is 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."

Malta's Archbishop Charles Scicluna told reporters today that bishops are not above the law. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

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 does not require them to report to police, however. 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.

The global victims group Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) said the Vatican shouldn't hide behind the argument that mandatory reporting to police is a problem in some countries.

Until heads roll, until bishops are fired — plain and simple — they'll continue to ignore and conceal clergy sex crimes.— David Clohessy, abuse survivor

"The church should establish the law for reporting and justify the exception," said ECA's Peter Iseley. "Instead, they are using the exception as a pretext for not reporting sexual abuse to civil authorities and to keep abuse secret."

If implemented fully, though, the Vatican could well see an avalanche of abuse and coverup reports. The decree can be applied retroactively, meaning priests and nuns are now required to report even old cases of sexual wrongdoing and coverups — and enjoy whistleblower protections for doing so.

Previously such reporting was left to the conscience of individual priests and nuns.

Canon lawyer Kurt Martens called the new law "revolutionary" for making sex abuse of minors and adults, as well as official coverups, subject to mandatory reporting.

"We owe gratitude to Pope Francis for this universal law of the Church, ensuring that a victim who wishes to tell his or her story cannot be silenced," Martens tweeted.

There is evidence the Vatican has known for decades about the problem of priests and bishops preying on nuns but has done next to nothing to stop it. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

Abuse survivor David Clohessy dismissed the new set of procedures, saying they remain secretive and internal to the church.

"Until heads roll, until bishops are fired — plain and simple — they'll continue to ignore and conceal clergy sex crimes," he said.

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.

While there are no punitive measures foreseen for noncompliance, bishops and religious superiors could be accused of coverup 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 recently following reports, including by The Associated Press and the Vatican's own women's magazine, of sisters being sexually assaulted by priests.

Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability praised some of the provisions, but said they weren't enough primarily because there were no provisions to sanction violations and will keep the process entirely internal to the church.

"Bishops watching bishops does not work," she said.

Must be welcomed

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.

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.

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