Pope Francis issues law forcing clergy to report sexual abuse

Nick Squires
Victims groups condemned the

Pope Francis has decreed that all suspected cases of sex abuse and cover-ups by Catholic clergy must be reported to Church authorities, in what the Vatican portrayed as a muscular response to the scandals that have shattered faith in the Catholic Church around the world.

But there is no obligation under the new rules to report sex abuse cases to the police and civil authorities, an omission that bitterly disappointed campaign groups, who argue that Catholic priests and bishops should not be considered above the law.

Nor do the new rules carry sanctions or punishment for clergy who fail to report abuse cases to their superiors.

The Pope issued a “motu proprio” – a legal document drawn up under his personal authority – which decrees that every Catholic diocese in the world must draw up reporting systems which will allow cases to be referred to Church authorities.

Those systems must be in place by June next year.

“The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful,” the Pope wrote in the document.

Insisting that “much has already been accomplished,” the Pope said the Catholic Church “must continue to learn from the bitter lessons of the past.”

The rules apply not only to children who are molested or raped by priests, but to “vulnerable adults” – a reference to scandals involving nuns who have been sexually exploited by male clergy.

The measures stopped well short of victims’ demands that abusive priests should be reported to the police.

“Nothing has changed with regard to reporting cases to the civil authorities,” said Marie Collins, an outspoken Irish victim of clerical sex abuse who was appointed by the Pope to a special commission on addressing the scandals but who resigned in protest at its lack of progress.

“And there are no consequences for clergy who don’t report abuse. I have gone past being dispirited or depressed. The words change, but the actions don’t. It seems as though the Vatican is going backwards, not forwards.”

A conference at the Vatican in February, which brought together nearly 200 bishops to discuss ways of combating sex abuse by clergy, had “achieved nothing”, Ms Collins said.

The victims’ group BishopAccountability was also disappointed with the new decree.

While it was “encouraging” that the law would protect whistleblowers and clarify reporting procedures, “it’s not nearly enough,” said the group’s Anne Barrett Doyle.

“The edict has three serious weaknesses - it stipulates no penalties for those who ignore it, it mandates no transparency to the public, and it doesn’t require the permanent removal of abusers from ministry,” she said.

“Under the new law, it's still entirely possible for a bishop to punish a child-molesting priest with a slap on the wrist and to keep his name hidden from the public. This is not the bold action that's desperately needed. A law without penalties is not a law at all - it’s a suggestion.”

By refusing to make the reporting of cases to the police mandatory, the process will remain within the hierarchy of the Church.

“This means it will be managed by Church officials who already have proved to be secretive and protective of accused priests. Bishops watching bishops does not work,” said Ms Barrett Doyle.