International News

Pope Issues Global Standards for Reporting, Investigating Clergy Abuse

By Inés San Martín

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta speaks at a news conference presenting Pope Francis’ new document, “Vos estis lux mundi” (“You are the light of the world”) at the Vatican May 9. The document, which goes into effect June 1, establishes and clarifies norms and procedures for holding bishops and religious superiors accountable in protecting minors as well as in protecting members of religious orders and seminarians from abuse. (Photo: Catholic News Service/Robert Duncan)

SANTIAGO, Chile (Crux) – Following February’s Vatican summit to address the Church’s fight against clerical sexual abuse, Pope Francis released a new law on Thursday making it mandatory for all clerics and members of religious orders to report cases of clerical sexual abuse to Church authorities, including when committed by bishops or cardinals.

“It is good that procedures be universally adopted to prevent and combat these crimes that betray the trust of the faithful,” the document signed by Pope Francis on May 7 says.

The title of the document- technically a motu proprio, meaning a change to Church law under the pope’s authority – is Vos estis lux mundi, “You are the light of the world.” The document opens with that phrase, and the following line completes a quote from the Gospel of Matthew: “A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.”

[Related: President of USCCB Statement on Pope Francis’ New Abuse Guidelines]

The motu proprio will come into effect June 1, 2019.

In a Vatican briefing Thursday, papal spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said it was “an important day for the protection of minors in the Church” and described the new norms as a contribution toward “making the Church ever more a safe house for our children, the weak and the vulnerable.”

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s informal point man on clerical sexual abuse cases, said the motu propriois an “important document,” one intended to make clear, among other points, that “cover-up isn’t acceptable, and it never was acceptable.”

[Related: Read The Vatican’s Full Set of New Guidelines on Abuse]

The document regulates how Church representatives are to respond when dealing with any crimes against the sixth Commandment: forcing someone through violence or abuse of authority to perform sexual acts; performing sexual acts with a minor or a vulnerable person; and the production, exhibition, possession or distribution of child pornography.

Among other things, the new law stipulates that:

  • Every diocese in the world must have a “system for reporting” by June 1, 2020 and notify the Vatican’s representative in the country that the system has been put in place.
  • All priests and members of religious orders are to report cases of sexual abuse and cover-up to Church authorities, but they must follow local law when it comes to reporting to civil authorities.
  • Lay experts may be involved in the Church’s investigation of any allegation made against a priest, male or female religious, deacon, bishop and cardinal.
  • Reporting of crimes and cover-ups follows the Church’s hierarchical structure.
  • Abuse or cover-up by bishops must be brought to the attention of Metropolitan archbishops, but in case the Metropolitan is accused of abuse (as for instance would have been the case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick), reporting can be done directly to the Holy See through the papal representative in the country. If the person accused is the nuncio, the allegation must be sent directly to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
  • The person who reports a case of abuse or cover-up must be protected, and they cannot be obliged to keep silent regarding the content of any report they file.
  • “The person under investigation enjoys the presumption of innocence.”
  • Bishops’ conferences are to create a “common fund” to help finance the investigation of allegations.

The motu proprio is also designed to address the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse, “consisting of actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations, whether administrative or penal, against a cleric or a religious regarding” these crimes.

“This offers a strong signal that even the leadership [of the Church] is subject not just to divine law but to canon law,” Archbishop Scicluna told the Tuesday briefing. “No one is above the law, and the procedure states this clearly.”

“People must know that bishops are at the service of the people,” Archbishop Scicluna said. “They’re not above the law, and if they do wrong they must be reported and subject to procedures.”

Vos estis lux mundi defines every person under 18 as a minor, and “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offence” as a vulnerable adult.

According to the document, crimes of sexual abuse “offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful.”

“In order that these phenomena, in all their forms, never happen again, a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church, so that personal sanctity and moral commitment can contribute to promoting the full credibility of the Gospel message and the effectiveness of the Church’s mission,” the document says.

Church authorities are also called to ensure that those who’ve been harmed, as well as their families, are “treated with dignity,” and given the needed spiritual assistance and medical and psychological support required.

Every allegation of abuse of a minor must be investigated by one of several Vatican offices, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that currently deals with cases of clerical abuse of children; the Congregation for the Eastern Churches; the Congregation for Bishops; the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples; the Congregation for the Clergy; and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

In an arguably revolutionary move for a system infamous for its lack of internal communication, the office handling a case is to inform the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and any other offices directly concerned of the report and the result of the investigation.

The motu proprio released May 9 also stipulates that a Vatican dicastery has 30 days to address the allegation from the moment it is first reported. The preliminary investigation, conducted by the metropolitan archbishop or a person assigned by him, must be done within 90 days, though they can request an extension of said time to the competent Vatican dicastery.

Archbishop Scicluna stressed that the law contains a provision insisting that nothing it contains should impair the “rights and duties established in every place by the law of the state,” calling that an “essential principle” and noting it’s the first time it’s been stated directly in a universal law of the Church.

According to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, the motu propriois one of the concrete results of the Feb. 21-24 summit held in Rome to address the “scourge of abuse.”

“Preparing that synodal encounter, many times the Holy Father said that he wanted concreteness and efficiency, so that every bishop or religious superior left Rome having clearly in mind what to do and what not to do,” Cardinal Ouellet told Vatican News. “This new document establishes new and efficient procedures to combat the scourge of abuse.”

Brooklyn Bishop Nicolas DiMarzio said the document shows that the Church is committed to transparency and tells people what they should do in reporting abuse. He said the reporting line that the diocese has established for victims will remain the same, but noted the new papal law adds another layer by enabling an appeal to a Metropolitan if a victim feels the local bishop has not handled the case properly. In Brooklyn and Queens, that means Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, would investigate along with his review board.

“I think it will be a benefit for the universal church that these are the clear documents that we do want to report any issue of abuse, and that we are required and obligated to report. We must report even if it is against a bishop, a priest, or an employee of the church – this is clear now throughout the world,” Bishop DiMarzio said. He said the Church in the United States will keep its “zero-tolerance policy,” meaning a clergy member will be removed from ministry permanently after one case of sexual abuse is established or the clergy member admits to the abuse.

Not every Vatican official is pleased. Some sources, speaking on background because they’re not authorized to address the document publicly, told Crux they worry it was “rushed” and lacks teeth, as several things are unclear, including which Vatican office is to handle an allegation if there are minors involved but no priests, and instead the abuse was perpetrated by a nun or religious brother.

The drafting of the document was coordinated by the Secretariat of State, but other offices were asked to give feedback on at least two draft versions, one from early April and a second later that month.

Another element that has raised flags among those asked to give feedback on the document is the broadening of the definition of “vulnerable persons,” since, according to those sources, it’s not entirely clear how the term is now to be understood.

According to a series of recommendations by Vatican officials regarding the April 16 draft version of the new motu proprio obtained by Crux, some believed that given the “impact it will have on the universal [Church] law,” it would have been better to “delay its publication” awaiting a document that doesn’t need to be released ad experimentum, although it should be noted that virtually all new Vatican legislation initially is released on an experimental basis.

The Tablet staff contributed to this report.

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