Catholic leaders welcome Pope Francis’ new rules on reporting sex abuse

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Catholic leaders greeted the news on May 9 that the Vatican will require all bishops to adopt procedures aimed at holding church leaders accountable for reporting sexual abuse with optimism. Victim advocacy groups appear more cautious, however, saying the new measure is only a first step.

Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago who in November floated an idea for bishop accountability similar to the outline released by the Vatican, called the new measure “revolutionary” and said it “closes a loop” when it comes to holding church leaders accountable.

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“What’s quite extraordinary about this is that if in fact there is a mishandling by a bishop who’s responsible for an investigation, then he is liable to be investigated for any cover-up,” he said in an interview with America.

Under the decree, bishops will have just over a year to establish a system available to the public to report the sexual abuse of minors or adults, the use of violence to coerce adults into sex, and the creation, possession or distribution of child pornography. The new measure also addresses bishops or religious superiors who cover up any of those crimes.

Archbishop Cupich: “What’s quite extraordinary about this is that if in fact there is a mishandling by a bishop who’s responsible for an investigation, then he is liable to be investigated for any cover-up.”

Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-director of BishopAccountability.org, said in a statement that the new law is “a step forward,” specifically for protecting whistleblowers, prohibiting a requirement of secrecy for those making allegations and requiring bishops to adopt procedures for reporting allegations.

“Yet it’s not nearly enough,” she continued, pointing out that the church law does not include language relating to penalties. “[I]t’s still entirely possible for a bishop to punish a child-molesting priest with a slap on the wrist and to keep his name hidden from the public. The new law does nothing to enact zero tolerance for child sexual abuse or for cover-up.”

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests also offered some praise, saying in a statement that “mandated reporting is a good thing” and highlighting that the new law applies to both children and “vulnerable adults.” While the new law requires bishops to comply with local civil law with respect to reporting abuse, it does not require all bishops to report claims to police. SNAP said it is concerned by the possibility of keeping some investigations within the church.

“We would have been far more impressed if this new law required church officials to report to police and prosecutors instead,” the statement says. “Oversight from external, secular authorities will better protect children and deter cover-ups.”

The Vatican has long argued that different legal systems in different countries make a universal reporting law impossible, and that imposing one could endanger the church in places where Catholics are a persecuted minority. But the procedures do for the first time put into universal church law that clergy must obey civil reporting requirements where they live, and that their obligation to report to the church in no way interferes with that.

Still, speaking at the Vatican on May 9, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna said “it would be a good thing” for abuse to be reported to police. “No one in the leadership is above the law,” said the archbishop, who is the Vatican’s point man on abuse issues.

Responding to concerns that investigations will still be handled by church authorities, Cardinal Cupich said that with the inclusion of laypeople in the investigation process, “it’s very clear there’s transparency.”

“We see these concrete actions as a positive step forward to increase the protection of children and vulnerable adults. We will be continuing study of the new document, along with canon lawyers, to understand the norm’s implications for Catholic sisters.”

Kim Smolik, who heads the Leadership Roundtable, a lay-led reform group that promotes transparency and accountability in the church, called the new rule “an important step forward for Catholics around the globe.” But Ms. Smolik cautioned that more must be done.

“While it does not yet address the breadth of culture change necessary to address the root causes of the crises of abuse and leadership failures, it does provide the foundation for bishop conferences to create meaningful accountability policies for their region,” she said.

The new procedures call for any claim of sexual misconduct or cover-up against a bishop, religious superior or Eastern Rite patriarch to be reported to the Holy See and the “metropolitan bishop,” an archbishop who is also responsible for a broader geographic area than his archdiocese alone.

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 bishop then has an initial 90 days to conduct the investigation, though extensions are possible.

The law makes clear he can use lay experts to help, a key provision that is already used in many dioceses. And it recommends that a special fund be set up to pay for the investigations, particularly in poorer parts of the world.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston who heads the Vatican’s child protection commission, said in a statement that it is “quite significant” that the new rule covers adults who “suffer sexual offenses through violence or intimidation or the abuse of authority,” noting that such victims can include “seminarians and religious.”

In recent months, both the secular media and the Vatican’s women’s magazine have reported on the sexual abuse of Catholic nuns around the world. In a statement to America, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious said it is “pleased that Pope Francis has taken a significant step forward.”

Cardinal Dolan called the new law “another sign of the Holy Father’s desire to institute reform, promote healing, and insure justice. It is a much-needed and tremendously important step forward for the Church universal.”

“We see these concrete actions as a positive step forward to increase the protection of children and vulnerable adults. We will be continuing study of the new document, along with canon lawyers, to understand the norm’s implications for Catholic sisters,” the statement said.

There have been recent cases involving U.S. bishops that have been investigated by metropolitan bishops, which Cardinal Cupich said prove the model is effective.

He pointed to Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori’s handling of an investigation into claims of sexual misconduct against retired West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield and Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s handling of claims against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Allegations against Mr. McCarrick, who was removed from the priesthood last year, came to light after an investigation by the lay review board in the Archdiocese of New York found decades-old accusations against the former Washington archbishop to be credible.

“We already have here a proof of concept,” Cardinal Cupich said, adding “we have seen that it does work.”

If allegations of abuse are leveled against a metropolitan bishop, such as in the case of Mr. McCarrick, the Vatican would decide which bishop would lead the investigation.

In a statement, Cardinal Dolan called the new law “another sign of the Holy Father’s desire to institute reform, promote healing, and insure justice. It is a much-needed and tremendously important step forward for the Church universal.”

Last year, facing pressure from Catholics to adopt measures to hold bishops accountable for failing to act on abuse, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops prepared to vote on measures aimed to address what critics say are loopholes in its existing policies. The Vatican asked bishops to hold off on a vote, saying that church leaders in Rome were not given enough time to vet the new policies. A few months later, bishops from around the world convened in Rome to discuss the sexual abuse crisis and hear from victims and lay experts about child protection.

Bishops from the United States will meet in Baltimore next month, where they are expected to address the new law. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S.C.C.B., said in a statement that U.S. bishops “have already begun the work of preparing implementation measures for deliberation” next month.

“The existing framework in the United States—including victim outreach, zero tolerance, reporting allegations to civil authorities, and lay expertise on review boards, among other measures—positions us readily to bring the Holy Father’s instructions to action,” he said.

As for the delay, Cardinal Cupich said, “What happened in November allowed time for everything to mature for the benefit of it, the universal church.”

“The pope is serious,” he said. “In less than 90 days, we have this universal church law following on the heels of the February meeting. This is very fast.”

Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the archbishop of Newark—Mr. McCarrick’s former archdiocese—tweeted his support for the new decree.

“Pope Francis makes it clear that transparency and accountability are essential to the identity and mission of our Church,” he wrote. In a second tweet, the cardinal added, “Those who abuse must be reported to civil and ecclesiastical authorities. No excuses. Coverup will not be tolerated.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. 

Correction May 10, 2019: The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests was misidentified as The Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
sheila gray
6 months 1 week ago

Things are moving fast today. As a survivor, I watch and listen with open ears, straining to find positive outcomes to issues that have plagued me for 49 years, since I was 17. When the world was supposed to open itself to all my hopes and dreams. That did not happen. My life has been a pale shadow of what it could have been... But, hey, I made it. My family has suffered, as well. I believe with all my heart that survivors need healing centers, safe places to go to be among “family”, to be together during these explosive times. We need to understand what the hell happened, and how to recover from it, our families, too. I think this is a very good development... for any abuse that takes place in the future. But we must not forget the walking wounded in our midst. We need a place. We need a Healing Center. Now... Thank you for listening.

arthur mccaffrey
6 months ago

Sheila--that is what the late, sadly departed Barbara Blaine tried to do when she founded SNAP as a group for Survivors, so they would have a common place to come together and share their stories with one another other. It was like 'healing in solidarity'. So you might want to see where the latest SNAP chapter is in your area. I absolutely agree on the value of Healing Centers--fully funded by RCC, but run by only lay people. God bless.

David Lorden
6 months 1 week ago

I’m afraid that true accountability may never be achieved due to culpability.

Molly Roach
6 months ago

Same old, same old! Sexual assault is a crime and should be treated as such. Refer it to the Vatican? That well-known corrupt bureaucracy?

Randal Agostini
6 months ago

If the Pedophilia problem is no worse in the Catholic Church than in any other institution, then it stands to reason that the problem is Administrative. If incompetent administration is the cause, then it stands to reason that pedophilia is probably not the only administrative problem. The hierarchal system lends itself, by nature, to be self serving and thus secretive and this has been enshrined into the system by having a Canon Law support the design.

arthur mccaffrey
6 months ago

why is everybody giving PF and the Vatican a pat on the back as if they have done something exceptional? This is a case of honor among thieves----so the criminals have come up with a plan not to assault your children anymore? Am I supposed to be impressed? Doesn't the eloquent PF ever think of shutting up and just crawling away out of shame? HUBRIS thy name is Vatican! Q= What is worse than child rape? A= trying to put a spin on how you handle the fallout!

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.]

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