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New Vatican law for reporting of sex abuse

Pope Francis greets visitors in Vatican City with special emphasis on children (ARÊTE/Bradley Weber)

The Vatican released a sweeping new law on Thursday that requires all Catholic priests and nuns worldwide to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-up by their superiors to church authorities, but stops short of spelling out penalties.

The new Roman Catholic Church law issued by Pope Francis represents his latest and most concrete attempt to deal with a global sex abuse scandal that has threatened the institution’s credibility and the pope’s leadership.

His law, known in Latin as Motu proprio, which is an edict from the pope himself, was issued as a nine-page letter in multiple languages and takes effect on June 1, but will be re-evaluated after three years.

It was meant “to prevent and fight sexual abuse committed against minors, against vulnerable persons or abuses carried out with violence, threat or abuse of authority,” the Holy See press office said in a statement. “In particular, within a year all dioceses must establish stable and publicly accessible systems to report cases of sexual abuse and their cover-up.”

The law obliges all of the church’s 415,000 priests and 660,000 religious sisters to inform church authorities if they believe that a cleric or sister sexually abused a minor, engaged in sexual misconduct with an adult or created, possessed or used child pornography — or that a superior tried to cover up any such crimes.

But it had no language regarding penalties and other consequences for non-compliance. “The reported cases must thereafter be promptly verified and handled in accordance with canon law,” the church said.

“Finally, the Motu proprio emphasizes the care of people harmed and the importance of welcoming them, listening to them and accompanying them, offering them the spiritual and medical assistance they need,” it said. “It is our profound desire that this new Motu proprio, accompanied by prayer and animated by conversion, will contribute to eliminating the scourge of sexual abuse of minors and the vulnerable.”

An ‘obligation’ to listen and help

The published church law calls for a senior bishop to begin looking into a case with the help of lay experts, providing a model for U.S. bishops to use when they take up new accountability measures at a meeting in Baltimore in mid-June. But it falls short of requiring anyone to report crimes to the police, which many victims recommended.

The pope’s hierarchy has long been accused of covering up misconduct of top prelates, such as Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal and archbishop of Washington who often mingled with those in power. Also in February, McCarrick was formally stripped of the priesthood after a Vatican investigation found him guilty of sexually abusing adults and minors, including his use of confession to solicit sex.

“If you really love the church, you need to report misconduct. If you report misconduct, you’re going to be protected,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s sex crimes prosecutor, said in a videotaped interview with Vatican News.

“Victims should know that there is an obligation on the part of the church to listen to them, to support them, to give them the help they need,” he said. “When it comes to your archbishop, I’m not above the law. … There is a procedure where I would be investigated. You should be informed about it.”

In late February, an unprecedented Vatican four-day summit closed with a mass at which the pope promised an “all-out battle” to prevent more sex abuse of children by pedophile priests and the bishops who cover up their crimes.

The pope had offered an eight-point pledge to instill wide-ranging institutional change that laid out his priorities for changing the church’s defensive posture and becoming transparent in its handling of cases. It also emphasized listening and responding to the needs and concerns of victims.

Some victims and critics of the church said the summit had not gone far enough, however, in responding to the clerical sex abuse crisis that first surfaced more than 30 years ago in Ireland and Australia, then spread to the United States, Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. The Catholic Church is considered the world’s longest continually operating international organization.

The impact and scale of the sexual exploitation of children, which violates their basic human rights and imposes lifetime trauma, “continues to outpace laws and policies, the justice system and child protection services” worldwide, said a 2018 report from ECPAT International, a Bangkok-based global network of 107 civil society organizations in 95 nations that works to prevent sexual exploitation of children.

The international organization said there was no typical victim, offender or offense, and the opportunities for predators to exploit vulnerable children through sexual abuse were expanding because of the Internet, mobile technology and cheap travel.

The world of international organizations explained.

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