Pope Francis issued sweeping new laws for the Catholic Church on the investigation of clergy sexual abuse May 9, mandating for the first time that all priests and members of religious orders worldwide are obligated to report any suspicions of abuse or its cover-up.
The pontiff has also established a new global system for the evaluation of reports of abuse or cover-up by bishops, which foresees the empowering of archbishops to conduct investigations of prelates in their local regions with the help of Vatican authorities.
The new norms, contained in a brief apostolic letter titled Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”), are exhaustive in scope, applying in some way to every ordained or vowed member of the 1.3 billion-person church. They also encourage lay people to make reports of abuse, and provide for involvement of lay experts in investigations.
In his introduction to the document, which goes into effect June 1, Francis says he has created the new laws so the church will “continue to learn from the bitter lessons of the past, looking with hope towards the future.”
“The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful,” the pope states. “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.”
The norms are the second set of laws Francis has issued on abuse in the three months since he held a global summit on the issue with the presidents of bishops’ conferences in February. They follow release of a new child-protection policy for Vatican City and for the church’s global ambassadors.
The new investigatory process could be a significant achievement for the pope, who has struggled for four years to implement an effective and transparent procedure of accountability for bishops who abuse or cover-up.
And you can read the entire document for yourself at the Vatican website.
Some highlights, via CNS:
The new norms now stipulate:
— Procedures for the investigation of bishops, cardinals, patriarchs, religious superiors and all those who lead — even temporarily — a diocese or particular church, including personal prelatures and personal ordinariates.
— Leaders will be held accountable not only with suspected cases of committing abuse themselves, but also accusations of having interfered with, covered up or failed to address abuse accusations they were aware of.
— When the accused individual is a bishop, the metropolitan will receive a mandate from the Holy See to investigate or delegate a person in charge of the preliminary investigation. A status report must be sent to the Holy See every 30 days, and the investigation completed with 90 days with some exceptions. Vatican offices are also held to specific timeframes and prompt action.
— By June 2020, every diocese in the world must create an office or “public, stable and easily accessible systems” for reporting suspected abuse against a minor or vulnerable person, failure of compliance of abuse guidelines by bishops or superiors, and cases of interference or cover-ups in either a civil or canonical investigation of suspected abuse.
— All priests and religious that become aware of abuse or its cover-up must alert their bishop or religious superior promptly.
— A minor is anyone under the age of 18 and a vulnerable person is “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 to otherwise resist the offense.”
— The definition of child pornography as any representation of a minor, regardless of the media used, “involved in explicit sexual activities, whether real or simulated, and any representation of sexual organs of minors for primarily sexual purposes.”
— Bishops and religious superiors will be accountable not just for protecting minors against abuse but also for protecting seminarians, novices and members of religious orders from violence and sexual abuse stemming from an abuse of power. The norms apply to reports of “delicts against the sixth commandment” regarding clerics or members of religious orders and “forcing someone, by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts.”
— Those who report abuse cannot be subjected to pressure, retaliation and discrimination or told to keep silent. The seal of confession, however, remains inviolable and is not affected by the new norms.
UPDATE: A sharp-eyed reader took me to task for not noting that the motu proprio includes deacons, not just priests. Indeed it does, since the Holy Father makes clear it applies to “clerics.”