Pope Francis has issued a highly anticipated law for Vatican City officials and diplomats overseas to tackle sexual abuse, setting up what is intended to be a model for the Roman Catholic Church worldwide by requiring, for the first time, that accusations be immediately reported to Vatican prosecutors.
The Vatican characterized the law — and accompanying pastoral guidelines — as a reflection of the most advanced thinking on preventing and addressing sexual abuse in the church. The law, dated March 26, calls on church authorities to listen immediately to people who say they are victims and to report any credible allegations to prosecutors.
Those who fail to report could be subjected to financial penalties and jail time.
The pope wrote, “Everyone’s awareness increases that abuses need to be reported to the competent authorities, and for the need to cooperate with them in prevention and counteraction activities.” But the law also makes clear that clerics should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that if condemned in a fair Vatican trial, they should be removed for their posts and, in the case of a priest, be subjected to the penalties of canon law.
Church officials had announced that the law was in the works at the conclusion of a meeting last month of leading bishops and cardinals at the Vatican to address the scourge of clergy sexual abuse. Francis had convened the meeting amid a renewed sense of crisis in the church.
Civil investigations into abuse by Catholic clerics in the United States,Australia, Chile, France and other countries had exposed once again the systemic problem of abusive priests exploiting their office and prelates covering up misconduct.
“While the Vatican’s mandatory reporting of legislation is good, it fails to address the real problem which is that church officials in the United States failed and continue to fail to report sex crimes against vulnerable people and kids for decades,” said Jeff Herman, a nationally recognized attorney for victims of sexual abuse.
“If we want to understand the Vatican’s position on this issue, look at how they treated Cardinal Law – the poster boy for the church sex abuse scandal in the United States. When Cardinal Law was exposed for moving predator priests from parish to parish, he was promoted to a position of honor at the Vatican.
The church has never properly policed itself and protected kids in the United States, which is one of the reasons New York passed the Child Victims Act to give victims the right to seek justice,” said Jeff Herman.