Pope Francis makes it mandatory for clergy to report sex abuse

Pope Francis greets faithful during the weekly general audience at the Vatican

The law establishes investigation and reporting procedures in cases where those accused of sexual abuse are bishops or higher ranking leaders of the church, according to The Associated Press. In years past, reporting was a matter of conscience for clerics and religious. Bishops and religious superiors are accountable only to the pope, and only a handful have ever been sanctioned or removed for sex abuse or cover-up, and usually only after particularly egregious misbehavior became public.

It also tells bishops to follow local laws governing reporting of abuse to civil authorities.

Pope Francis admitted publicly in February that priests have used nuns as "sexual slaves" and may still be doing so.

The papal edict, named "Vos Estis Lux Mundi" (You Are the Light of the World), says the "norms apply without prejudice to the rights and obligations established in each place by state laws, particularly those concerning any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities".

The obligation for all clerics, and all men and women religious, to "report promptly" all accusations of abuse of which they become aware, as well as any omissions and cover-ups in the management of cases of abuse, to ecclesiastical authorities.

The new law further provides whistleblower protections for those reporting on sexual abuse while also requiring dioceses to put systems into place by June 2020 to receive confidential allegations.

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With this new juridical instrument, the Catholic Church takes a further and incisive step in the prevention and fight against abuse, putting the emphasis on concrete actions.

"First of all that leadership is not above the law", Scicluna said, "and second that leadership needs to know, all of us in leadership we need to know, that if the people love the Church they're going to denounce us when we do something wrong". Although the word "seminarian" does not appear in the document, Cardinal Ouellet explained that "in addition to the abuses against minors and vulnerable adults, it also refers to molestation or violence through abuse of authority: this means that cases of the abuse of religious by clerics, or abuse of seminarians or novices by their superiors are also included in the regulations".

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 Motu Proprio establishes and codifies procedures that all the Church must follow in responding to sexual abuse - not just of minors, but also of vulnerable adults, as well as cases of sexual abuse through intimidation and coercion by those in positions of authority", Cardinal Dolan said.

Last summer, the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick epitomized the trend: McCarrick rose to the heights of the Catholic hierarchy even though he had credible allegations of sexual misconduct with adults against him that the Vatican had received.

The letter marks a significant shift in the dynamic of how the Church investigates cases of abuse.

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Collins also noted that the procedures allow for an investigating bishop to inform a superior when he has been accused of child sex abuse or covering it up.

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.

Once the investigation is completed, the metropolitan sends the results to the Vatican for a decision on how to proceed.

The new law is procedural and not criminal in nature.

The U.S. hierarchy has been under vast public pressure to hold one another accountable for sexual misconduct and cover-up stemming from both the McCarrick scandal and the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

We now must see how the Vatican executes and enforces the new rules - especially because the laws can be applied retroactively against past cover-ups. Lay experts can be consulted by the bishops investigating abuse.

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