Pope Francis does the sign of the cross during his weekly general audience, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, May 8, 2019.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP Photo

Vatican law: Priests, nuns must report sex abuse, cover-up

May 09, 2019 - 8:02 am

UPDATED: 1:20 p.m.

By Nicole Winfield, Associated Press

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis issued a groundbreaking law Thursday requiring all Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-up by their superiors to church authorities, in a groundbreaking new effort to hold the Catholic hierarchy accountable for failing to protect their flocks.


The new church law provides whistle-blower protections for anyone making a report and requires all dioceses around the world to have a system in place to receive the claims confidentially. And it outlines procedures for conducting preliminary investigations when the accused is a bishop, cardinal or religious superior.

It's the latest effort by Francis to respond to the global eruption of the sex abuse and cover-up scandal that has devastated the credibility of the Catholic hierarchy and his own papacy. And it provides a new legal framework for U.S. bishops to use as they prepare to adopt accountability measures next month to respond to the scandal there.

The law makes the world's 415,000 Catholic priests and 660,000 religious sisters mandated reporters. That means they are required to inform church authorities when they learn or have "well-founded motives to believe" that a cleric or sister has engaged in sexual abuse of a minor, sexual misconduct with an adult, possession of child pornography — or that a superior has covered up any of those crimes.

The law doesn't require them to report to police. The Vatican has long argued that doing so could endanger the church in places where Catholics are a persecuted minority. But it does for the first time put into universal church law that they must obey civil reporting requirements where they live, and that their obligation to report to the church in no way interferes with that.

If it is implemented fully, the Vatican could well see an avalanche of abuse and cover-up reports in the coming years. Since the law is procedural and not criminal in nature, it can be applied retroactively, meaning priests and nuns are now required to report even old cases of sexual wrongdoing and cover-up — and enjoy whistleblower protections for doing so.

Local activists suggest the pope’s action does not go far enough to address the issue of sex abuse within the Catholic Church. Mike McDonnell is a survivor of abuse twice over and the Philadelphia spokesman for SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"How can we allow the church to police themselves?” he said. "I believe that the long-term solution in this is to get lay involvement in regards to the investigation of the bishops themselves and how they’re handling this."

Pope Francis leaves that as an option for a diocese, not a mandate. But in the end, McDonnell suggests it really comes down to how the Papal instructions are carried out on the local level.

"We know that individuals will go to a local pastor or the bishop, and then they’re able to control it," McDonnell added. "Then they start, and they’re able to control the narrative. We need to go to law enforcement first."

He also insists the statute of limitations for civil actions against predator priests needs to be extended by states. Pennsylvania is considering it, and New Jersey has that option awaiting action from the governor.

Nationwide there is a difference of opinion.

Futurechurch.org is another activist organization based outside of Cleveland, Ohio. They applaud the Pope’s action, in large part because as Co-director Deborah Rose-Milavec says, "every diocese in the world has to have a protocol now. There is a lot of resistance in many countries to doing anything." And it sets deadlines for local branches of the church to set those protocols in place.

But colleague Russ Petrus expresses the group’s primary concern, one they share with SNAP, that lay people have been kept out of the church’s decision making and investigatory process for the most part.

"This is a group of men who have shown themselves over several decades incapable of policing themselves. So it’s only right that we take the next step by involving lay people," Petrus said.

He does note how Francis has expanded the church’s definition of abuse.

"We’ve seen in recent months that women religious and seminarians are particularly vulnerable to the abuse of the clerics who are over them," he said.

In another legal first for the Vatican, the pope mandated that victims reporting abuse must be welcomed, listened to and supported by the hierarchy, as well as offered spiritual, medical and psychological assistance. It doesn't mandate financial reparations, however.

But the key point of the law is to decree that the church's own priests and nuns are mandated reporters and require every diocese around the world create an accessible, confidential reporting system to receive claims of sexual abuse and cover-up. The other key element is outlining how preliminary investigations are carried out when the accused predator is a member of the hierarchy.

The new procedures call for any claim of sexual misconduct or cover-up against a bishop, religious superior or eastern rite patriarch be reported to the Holy See and the metropolitan bishop responsible for the geographic area involved.

Unless the metropolitan bishop finds the claim "manifestly unfounded," he must immediately ask permission from the Vatican to open a preliminary investigation and must hear back from Rome within 30 days — a remarkably fast turnaround for the lethargic Holy See. The metropolitan then has an initial 90 days to conduct the investigation — extensions are possible.

Victims and their advocates have long complained that bishops and religious superiors have escaped justice for having engaged in sexual misconduct themselves, or failed to protect their flocks from predator priests. Bishops and religious superiors are accountable only to the pope, and only a handful have been sanctioned or removed because particularly egregious misbehavior became public.


KYW Newsradio's David Madden contributed to this report.

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