All Catholic priests and nuns worldwide are now required to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-up by their superiors as part of a sweeping new law implemented Thursday by Pope Francis. The law also includes whistle-blower protections for reporters.
Additionally, the law outlines procedures for launching preliminary investigations when the accused is a bishop, cardinal or religious superior, and every diocese around the globe has been ordered to develop a system to process confidential claims.
"We have said for years that priests must conform to certain strict rules, so why shouldn't bishops and others in the hierarchy do the same?" Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican office for bishops, said. "It's not just a law, but a profound responsibility."
The new rules come as the Roman Catholic Church deals with global sex abuse scandals in which the Catholic hierarchy has come under fire for failing to protect members and, in some instances, nuns.
Essentially, the law makes the world's 415,000 Catholic priests and 660,000 religious sisters mandated reporters within the church, although they are not required to report abuses to law enforcement. The church has been reticent to require criminal reporting, citing fears it would endanger the church in places where Catholics are a persecuted minority. While criminal reporting is not required, clergy must obey civil reporting requirements where they live.
As mandated reporters, priests and nuns 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.
In America, the new rules are seen as a building block as U.S. Bishops convene June 11-13 for a national meeting to flush out new accountability procedures here as sex abuse scandals continue to make headlines.
Earlier this year, the Vatican defrocked a former U.S. Cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, after a church tribunal found him guilty of abuse against minors and adult seminarians. He continued to rise through the church ranks despite credible allegations of sexual misconduct. McCarrick is the highest-ranking official ever to be expelled over sex abuse.
Last summer, a Pennsylvania grand jury report uncovered a list of more than 300 Catholic priests statewide who sexually abused at least 1,000 children over seven decades, while church leaders covered it up.
The United States is not alone in fielding sex abuse cases. In February, Australian Cardinal George Pell was convicted of sex crimes against two choirboys. About a week later, French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin was found guilty of failing to report to law enforcement accusations against a pedophile priest. In Chile, at least seven bishops and a cardinal have resigned in the wake of a mammoth sex abuse scandal there.
Officially, the church defines reportable crimes 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.
In recent months, cases of sexual abuse of nuns and seminarians by their superiors have also been reported, which Pope Francis acknowledged in February.
“It’s not that everyone does this, but there have been priests and bishops who have,” Francis told reporters after he was asked about priests who target nuns. “And I think that it’s continuing because it’s not like once you realize it that it stops. It continues. And for some time we’ve been working on it.”
Photo courtesy: Getty Images/Charles McQuillan/Stringer
Lori Arnold is a national award-winning journalist whose experience includes 16 years at a daily community newspaper in San Diego and 16 years as writer-editor for the Christian Examiner. She owns StoryLori Media and is a member of the Evangelical Press Association.