US bishops approve changes to Church law on sex abuse reporting

Cyril JULIEN
US bishops have approved a change to Church law on reporting sex abuse first announced by Pope Francis in May 2019 (AFP Photo/Filippo MONTEFORTE)

Washington (AFP) - The Catholic Church in the United States, which has been rocked in recent years by child sex abuse scandals and investigations, on Thursday approved a papal document that requires clergy to report suspicions of sexual assault.

At a meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, participants approved by a large majority the changes to the US catechism, which also reinforces systems in place for victims to signal alleged abuse.

The "motu proprio" -- a legal document issued under Pope Francis's personal authority -- declares that anyone who has knowledge of abuse, or suspects it, is "obliged to report (it) promptly" to the Church, using "easily accessible systems."

The law only applies within the Church and has no force to oblige individuals to report abuse to civil authorities.

Under the new measure, every diocese around the world is obliged by June 2020 to create a system for the reporting of sexual abuse by clerics, the use of child pornography and cover-ups of abuse.

Until now, clergy only reported sexual abuse according to their own consciences.

"We approved some motions that will help us to move forward, especially in light of bishops' accountability... and reaffirming the need of lay expertise to help us in our work," said conference spokesman Michael Burbidge.

Victims' rights groups cried foul, especially about the lack of obligation to report any alleged crimes to the police.

Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said the bishops' policy of "self-policing" was not enough and could lead to continued abuse.

"US bishops do not operate a self-governing country when it comes to criminal acts against children," said SNAP board member Becky Ianni.

- 'Predator' priests -

The Church is in the throes of a major crisis of confidence in the United States, with multiple revelations of sexual assault and abuse committed by priests nationwide, notably targeting children, over the course of decades.

Those priests were largely shielded from prosecution by their superiors.

In August 2018, a devastating report from a Pennsylvania grand jury revealed that more than 300 "predator" priests had allegedly abused over 1,000 children across seven decades.

That scandal forced the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who served as a bishop in Pennsylvania and was blamed for not doing enough to deal with pedophile priests.

Another influential US cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, was defrocked earlier this year over accusations that he sexually abused a teenage boy in the 1970s.

Bishop Michael Bransfield stepped down last year amid allegations that he sexually harassed adults.

The Catholic Church is not the only one under scrutiny in the United States.

Also this week, delegates attending the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Alabama easily approved a resolution to bar congregations where allegations of sexual abuse are mishandled.

The decision marked a significant change for a church with 15 million members. The Southern Baptist Convention is largely decentralized and individual churches are largely autonomous.