Pope Francis issues new rules on mandatory abuse reporting

On the 9 May 2019 Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter ”Vos estis lux mundi” which sets global standards for the reporting and investigation of clerical sexual abuse.

These new rules follow on from the Meeting for the Protection of Minors held in Rome in February 2019, which was attended by Bishops from around the world.

It establishes new procedural rules which it is hoped will combat sexual abuse and to ensure that Bishops and Religious Superiors are held accountable for their actions.

The new rules will operate for a 3 year experimental period and are effective as of the 1 June 2019.

In the document, Pope Francis wrote that “The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful” and in order to stop all forms of abuse from happening, not only is “a continuous and profound conversion of hearts” necessary, there must be “concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the church.”

Put simply, the new procedural rules provide 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.

It also obliges 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.

The new rules provide as follows:-

  • Procedures for the investigation of Bishops, Cardinals, Patriarchs, Religious Superiors and all those who lead – even temporarily.
  • 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 Vatican to investigate or delegate a person in charge of the preliminary investigation. A status report must be sent to the Vatican every 30 days, and the investigation completed within 90 days with some exceptions. Vatican offices are also held to specific time frames and prompt action.
  • By June 2020, every Diocese in the world must create an office 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. The rules do not specify what these systems comprise of, they leave it to the local Diocese to decide so they can take account of local cultures and conditions. There have already been some concerns expressed about how this may impact on consistency in applying the new rules worldwide.
  • All priests and religious that become aware of abuse or its cover-up must alert their Bishop or Religious Superior promptly.
  • The new rules do not only apply to minors but also recognise the special position of a vulnerable person. A minor is defined as 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 offences.” regardless of age.
  • The new rules define 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 and vulnerable persons against abuse but also for protecting seminarians, novices and members of religious orders from violence and sexual abuse stemming from an abuse of power.
  • 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.
  • When the investigation is complete, the Bishop sends the results to the proper Vatican office, which then follows existing canon law. The new rules do not introduce any new penalties.
  • The new rules do not interfere with or change any reporting obligation that may exist in each countries’ 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.

There can be little doubt that the new rules are a significant development of the Church’s current position and laws in this area and provide greater clarity and accountability for all on what the Church’s obligations are when it comes to safeguarding.

While survivor groups have welcomed the new rules and in particular that fact they specifically provide for vulnerable persons regardless of age they have still expressed concerns that under the new rules allegations and/or reports of abuse are still being investigated internally by the Church.

For anyone who wants to read an English version of the new rules please click here.

Louise Roden Authored by Louise Roden, solicitor at BLM

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