SPECIAL REPORT: Pope Francis issues new norms on mandatory abuse reporting
Pope Francis prays in front of a candle in memory of victims of sexual abuse as he visits St Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin on 25 August 2018. Pope Francis has revised and clarified 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: Paul Haring/CNS.
By Carol Glatz
Pope Francis has revised and clarified 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.
The new juridical instrument is meant to help bishops and religious leaders around the world clearly understand their duties and church law, underlining how they are ultimately responsible for proper governance and protecting those entrusted to their care.
For this reason, the new document establishes a clearer set of universal procedures for reporting suspected abuse, carrying out initial investigations and protecting victims and whistleblowers.
The new document, given "Motu Proprio," on the Holy Father's own initiative, was titled Vos Estis Lux Mundi ("You are the light of the world"), based on a verse from the Gospel of St. Matthew (5:14).
"The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful," Pope Francis said in the document, released on May 9. The norms come into effect June 1.
In order to stop all forms of abuse from ever happening again, not only is "a continuous and profound conversion of hearts" necessary, there must be "concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the church," he wrote.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, said the new norms ascribe a new role to heads of dioceses by making them responsible for alerting the proper Vatican authorities of all forms of suspected abuse, including the possession, distribution or creation of pornography involving a minor.
He told Vatican News on May 9 that the norms respond to Pope Francis' continued insistence for concrete and effective measures to ensure bishops and religious superiors have a very clear understanding of what their obligations are and what they should and should not do when it comes to safeguarding.
It also requires all priests and religious to report suspected abuse or cover-ups and encourages any lay person to report through a now-mandated reporting "system" or office in each diocese.
How the office or "system" works will be up to each diocese, but "the idea is that anyone who has suffered abuse can have recourse to the local church, while being assured they will be well received, protected from retaliation, and that their reports will be treated with the utmost seriousness," Andrea Tornielli, Editorial Director of the Dicastery for Communication, told Vatican News.
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.
- Procedures for carrying out the preliminary investigation include the bishop immediately requesting from the Vatican that he or a delegate be assigned to begin the preliminary investigation. If he considers an accusation is unfounded, the papal nuncio is informed. The Vatican will have 30 days to respond to the request and the bishop sends a status report to the Vatican every 30 days.
- When the investigation is complete, the bishop sends the results to the proper Vatican office, which then follows existing canon law.
- The continued obligation to respect civil laws regarding mandatory reporting.
- Those who reported suspected abuse or cover-up will be told of the outcome of the investigation if they request to be informed.
- A fund can be set up by bishops' conferences, synods and church provinces to cover the costs of investigations.
- The document is a follow-up to Pope Francis' 2016 document, "As a Loving Mother," on transparency and accountability of bishops and religious superiors.
The two documents together are meant to correct what had been a lack of or unclear procedures for investigating the way a bishop complies with already established norms against abuse and clearly expressing the consequences of noncompliance or cover-ups.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta and Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, together with Alessandro Gisotti of the Vatican press office, present Pope Francis' new document on abuse norms, "Vos estis lux mundi" at the Vatican on 9 May 2019. Photo: Robert Duncan/CNS.
Australian Bishops welcome new norms
In a statement released on 10 May, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference welcomed Pope Francis’ new document on the investigation and reporting of abuse within Church settings, which enshrines some measures long in place in Australia but also makes new provisions that will give greater impetus to the Church’s safeguarding efforts in this country.
Conference President Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who represented the Australian bishops at the meeting of leaders of episcopal conferences at the Vatican in February, said the publication of Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You are the Light of the World) is the latest concrete outcome following that unprecedented gathering.
“The release of this document less than three months after the meeting shows that, for Pope Francis, the updating of universal Church law on the investigation and reporting of abuse against children and other vulnerable people is a real priority,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“It’s a priority the Australian bishops share. Now all bishops’ conferences and religious congregations around the world will have to meet standards that are more rigorous. That’s a good thing.”
During the conference’s biannual meeting in May, the bishops discussed the Church’s ongoing response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, including reforms related to those Pope Francis has introduced regarding accountability for Church leaders.
“While Catholic leaders in Australia have been responding to the sexual abuse for three decades, we’re continually reviewing our policies and procedures to make Catholic settings the safest possible place for children and other vulnerable people.
“This new document from Pope [Francis] will be a great help in that,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
Archbishop Coleridge said the Church in Australia would continue to implement protocols that go beyond the requirements of the motu proprio.
“For example, reporting allegations to the police and other government authorities has been part of our Church practice for more than two decades. We remain committed to having the most effective practices possible,” he added.
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