Pope issues new norms for reporting, investigating clergy abuse

New norms for the whole Catholic Church against those who abuse or cover up will come into effect June 1

Photo: Travel Wild/iStock

Pope Francis has released a new law making it mandatory for all clerics and members of religious orders to report cases of clerical sexual abuse to Church authorities.

It also includes actions or omissions of bishops and religious superiors that in any way interfere with or fail to investigate abuse.

“The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological, and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful. 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,” Francis said in the document — technically a motu proprio, meaning a change to Church law under the pope’s authority.

Titled Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are the Light of the World), the document opens with that phrase and completes a quote from the Gospel of Matthew: “A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Pope Francis processes into Mass on Easter Sunday 2013 at St Peter’s Square in Rome. Photo: Philip Chidell/Shutterstock

The motu proprio, which applies to the whole Catholic Church, will come into effect June 1.

“It is good that procedures be universally adopted to prevent and combat these crimes that betray the trust of the faithful. I desire that this commitment be implemented in a fully ecclesial manner, so that it may express the communion that keeps us united, in mutual listening, and open to the contributions of those who care deeply about this process of conversion,” Francis said.

The new law regulates how Church representatives are to respond with crimes against the Sixth Commandment: forcing someone through violence or abuse of authority to perform sexual acts; performing sexual acts with a minor or a vulnerable person; and the production, exhibition, possession, or distribution of child pornography.

It establishes new procedural rules to combat sexual abuse and to ensure that bishops and religious superiors are held accountable for their actions. Every diocese must have a system that allows the public to submit reports easily.

An ‘office’ for reporting in every diocese

Among the new policies given is the obligation for every diocese in the world to set up, by June 2020, “one or more public, stable, and easily accessible systems for submission of reports” concerning sexual abuse committed by clerics and religious, the use of child pornography, and cover-ups of the same abuse.

The obligation to report

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.

Though this obligation was formerly left up to individual consciences, it now becomes a universally established legal precept.

Not only child abuse

The document covers not only violence and abuse against children and vulnerable adults, but also sexual abuse and violence resulting from an abuse of authority as well. This includes cases of violence against religious by clerics, as well as abuse committed against adult seminarians or novices.

Dealing with cover-ups

One of the most important elements is the identification, as a specific category, of so-called cover-ups, defined as “actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations, whether administrative or penal, against a cleric or a religious regarding the delicts” of sexual abuse.

The protection of vulnerable people

The document stresses the importance of protecting minors (anyone under 18) and vulnerable people.

The definition of a “vulnerable person” is broadened to include “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.”

Respecting laws 

The obligation to report to the local ordinary or religious superior does not interfere with, or change, any other reporting obligation that may exist in respective countries.

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 protection of victims and those reporting abuse

The document contains sections dedicated to protecting those who come forward to report abuse.

A person reporting abuse cannot be subjected to “prejudice, retaliation, or discrimination” because of what they report.

The problem of victims who in the past have been told to keep silent is also addressed. However, the seal of confession remains absolute and inviolable and is in no way affected by this legislation.

The investigation of bishops

The document regulates the investigation of bishops, cardinals, religious superiors, and all those who lead a diocese, or another particular church, in various capacities and even temporarily.

The rules apply not only in the case of these persons being investigated for having committed sexual abuse themselves, but also if they are accused of having “covered up,” or of failing to pursue abuses of which they were aware, and which it was their duty to address.

The role of the metropolitan

There are new provisions regarding the role of the metropolitan archbishop in preliminary investigations. If the accused individual is a bishop, the metropolitan receives a mandate from the Holy See to investigate.

Involvement of the laity

The metropolitan, in conducting the investigations, can avail himself of the help of “qualified persons,” according to “the needs of the individual case and, in particular, taking into account the cooperation that can be offered by the lay faithful.”

Presumption of innocence

The principle of presumption of innocence of the person under investigation is reaffirmed. The accused will be informed of the investigation when requested to do so by the competent dicastery. The accusation must be notified only if formal proceedings are opened.

Conclusion of the investigation

The motu proprio does not modify the penalties for crimes committed, but it does establish the procedures for reporting and carrying out the preliminary investigation. At the conclusion of the investigation, the metropolitan (or bishop) forwards the results to the competent Vatican dicastery. This completes his contribution.

The competent dicastery then proceeds “in accordance with the law provided for the specific case,” acting on the basis of already existing canonical norms. Based on the results of the preliminary investigation, the Holy See can immediately impose preventive and restrictive measures on the person under investigation.

To learn more: 

Catholic Digest‘s interview from the March 2019 print issue with Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People

Expert advice: Coping with the clergy sex abuse crisis: How do we keep the faith amid such betrayal? How do we talk to our kids about this? Here’s what you need to know

USCCB statement and FAQs about Vos Estis Lux Mundi

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