c.2019 New York Times News Service
ROME — Pope Francis on Thursday introduced the Roman Catholic Church’s first worldwide law requiring officials to report and investigate clerical sex abuse and its cover-up, issues that have haunted his papacy and devastated the church he has sought to remake.
The new norms, delivered in a Motu Proprio, or law decreed by the pope himself, come into force on June 1 and are experimental, in that they will be re-evaluated after a three-year trial period.
The law obligates bishops or other church officials to report any credible accusation of abuse to their superiors.
Vatican officials and supporters of Francis said that in giving all local churches rules on how to report misbehavior, he was in effect writing accountability for bishops into church law. Until now, reporting and investigation practices have differed widely from country to country, or even diocese to diocese.
The law relates to the sexual abuse of minors under the age of 18, of vulnerable adults who are physically or mentally disabled and of people who are taken advantage of because they find themselves in positions in which they cannot exercise their full autonomy. It also extends to the creation, possession or use of child pornography.
If those crimes are covered up by bishops or other church officials, or if those officials “intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations,” Francis writes, then they will also be subject to investigation.
Victims of abuse and their advocates are likely to be underwhelmed by the new norms, which do not address the church trials or penalties for abuse and its cover-up, and instead focus on reporting procedures. For the frustrated faithful and others infuriated by church inaction in addressing abuse, the new law was a modest and long-overdue application of common sense.
But on Thursday, the church’s top investigator of sex crimes, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, said at a Vatican news conference that the new law represented a significant step forward. Supporters of Francis said that the law faced much opposition within the Vatican, where many either remain unconvinced that abuse is a widespread problem or believe that it has already been solved.
Scicluna said that decades of experience had shown a “misplaced interest in protecting the institution,” while the new law established “disclosure as the main policy of the church.”
The law does not require reporting to law enforcement authorities — as many critics, especially in the United States, have demanded — though it allows national bishops’ conferences to enact such policies. Scicluna said that “it would be a good thing” for people to go to the police.