VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis issued a groundbreaking new church law Thursday requiring all Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities, in a new effort to hold the Catholic hierarchy accountable for failing to protect their flocks.
The law provides whistleblower protections for anyone making a report and requires all dioceses to have a system in place to receive the claims confidentially. And it outlines internal procedures for conducting preliminary investigations when the accused is a bishop, cardinal or religious superior.
Abuse victims and their advocates said the law was a step forward, but not enough since it doesn't require the crimes to be reported to police and essentially tasks discredited bishops who have mishandled abuse for decades with policing their own.
It's the latest effort by Francis to respond to the global 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 as they prepare to adopt accountability measures next month to respond to the scandal there.
"People must know that bishops are at the service of the people," said Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's longtime sex crimes prosecutor. "They are not above the law, and if they do wrong, they must be reported."
The decree requires the world's 415,000 Catholic priests and 660,000 nuns to tell church authorities when they learn or have "well-founded motives to believe" 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.
It doesn't require them to report to police, however. The Vatican has long argued that different legal systems make a universal reporting law impossible, and that imposing one could endanger the church in places where Catholics are a persecuted minority. But the procedures do for the first time put into universal law that victims cannot be silenced, that clergy must obey civil reporting requirements where they live, and that their obligation to report to the church in no way interferes with that.
The global victims group Ending Clergy Abuse, or ECA, said the Vatican shouldn't hide behind the argument that mandatory reporting to police is a problem in some countries.
"The church should establish the law for reporting and justify the exception," said ECA's Peter Iseley. "Instead, they are using the exception as a pretext for not reporting sexual abuse to civil authorities and to keep abuse secret."
If implemented fully, though, the Vatican could well see an avalanche of abuse and cover-up reports. The decree can be applied retroactively, meaning priests and nuns are now required to report even old cases of sexual wrongdoing and cover-ups — and enjoy whistleblower protections for doing so.
Previously such reporting was left to the conscience of individual priests and nuns.
Canon lawyer Kurt Martens called the new law "revolutionary" by making sex abuse of minors and adults, as well as official cover-ups, subject to mandatory reporting.
"We owe gratitude to Pope Francis for this universal law of the Church, ensuring that a victim who wishes to tell his or her story cannot be silenced," Martens tweeted.
Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability praised some of the provisions but said they weren't enough, primarily because there were no sanctions envisaged for violations, and because the process remained entirely internal.
"Bishops watching bishops does not work," she said.
While there are no punitive measures foreseen for noncompliance, bishops and religious superiors could be accused of cover-up or negligence if they fail to implement the provisions or retaliate against priests and nuns who make reports against them.
The law defines the crimes that must be reported as: performing sexual acts with a minor or vulnerable person; forcing an adult "by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts"; and the production, possession or distribution of child pornography. Cover-up is defined as "actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid" civil or canonical investigations.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican's bishops' office, said the inclusion of sex crimes involving adults was a clear reference to cases of sexual abuse of nuns and seminarians by their superiors — a scandal that has exploded recently following reports, including by The Associated Press and the Vatican's own women's magazine, of sisters being sexually assaulted by priests.
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.
The law says victims can't be forced to keep quiet, even though the investigation itself is still conducted under pontifical secret. And in a novelty, the law requires that if victims request it, they must be told of the outcome of the investigation — again a response to complaints that victims are kept in the dark about how their claims were handled.
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 ever been sanctioned or removed for sex abuse or cover-up, and usually only after particularly egregious misbehavior became public.
Last summer, the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick epitomized the trend: McCarrick rose to the heights of the Catholic hierarchy even though he had credible allegations of sexual misconduct with adults against him that the Vatican had received. Francis defrocked McCarrick this year after a U.S. church investigation determined he sexually abused minors as well as adult seminarians.
The new procedures call for any claim of sexual misconduct or cover-up against a bishop, religious superior or Eastern Rite patriarch to be reported to the Holy See and the metropolitan bishop, who is a regular diocesan bishop also responsible for a broader geographic area than his dioceses alone.
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 bishop then has an initial 90 days to conduct the investigation, though extensions are possible.
The law makes clear he can use lay experts to help, a key provision that is already used in many dioceses. And it recommends that a special fund be set up to pay for the investigations, particularly in poorer parts of the world.
Once the investigation is over, the metropolitan sends the results to the Vatican for a decision on how to proceed.
The new law requires Vatican offices to share information throughout the process, since an untold number of cases have fallen through the cracks, thanks to the silo-like nature of the Holy See bureaucracy.
The procedures published Thursday are likely to form a key legal framework for U.S. bishops when they meet in Baltimore June 11-13 to adopt new accountability procedures, though it will certainly force them to scrap their existing proposals and make them conform to the new law.
The head of the U.S. conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, said the law was a "blessing" and that the conference was already working on how to implement it.
But the law is essentially a variation of a counterproposal to DiNardo's planned measures made last year by Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, envisaging using the metropolitan bishop aided by lay experts to investigate bishops.
The law takes effect June 1 for an initial three years. Dioceses must establish the reporting system and confirm it is in place to the local Vatican embassy by June 1, 2020.