Pope Francis on Saturday expanded and made permanent a 2019 church law that seeks to hold top religious leaders, church officials and now lay Catholic leaders responsible if they commit or cover up cases of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.
The most significant component of the law may be its impact on the “lay faithful” who run international religious movements recognized by the Holy See. They will now be responsible for abusive acts committed within their movements while they held office. This was a reaction to instances of lay leaders who allowed abuse of the faithful under their spiritual care or jurisdiction. The law, which goes into effect on April 30, also requires church authorities in the place where abuse may have occurred to conduct investigations.
Despite some opposition in the Vatican, the rules also explicitly widen the definition of adult victims who can be considered vulnerable. Whereas the previous law considered only “habitually” impaired people to be vulnerable, the updated version includes “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability” to resist.
The law also penalizes cases of abuse or violence against religious women such as nuns and against seminarians by clerics.
The rules come at a time when the scourge of abuse — while still devastating to the Roman Catholic Church — no longer seems as direct a threat to Francis’ pontificate as it was in 2019. Back then, amid the exposure of decades of cover-ups in the United States and of the pope’s own dismissal of valid claims made more recently by victims of church abuse in Chile, Francis passed a then-temporary law to establish clear rules for the investigation of complicit bishops and other church officials. Abuse survivors considered it a substantive step forward but have criticized the way in which the law was carried out, especially in countries where clerics have doubted the existence of an abuse problem.
With the original decree in 2019, Francis tried to settle the longstanding controversy over how to investigate bishops accused of abuse or cover-ups. The decree empowered archbishops who presided over geographic regions to handle accusations against bishops in their areas. The leaders of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had proposed a different structure, in which panels including lay experts would examine accusations against bishops.
But the Vatican stopped the American bishops from voting on that proposal. As in many cases, including the Vatican’s opposition to the German church’s seeking to bless gay unions, Francis prefers that the entire church act together to avoid fragmentation. The new law makes clear that lay qualified experts can be called on to help with investigations, but that their inclusion is not required.
Vatican officials said the new law was more inclusive and allowed the church to build capacity to better respond to the reporting of victims. Instead of maintaining a vague system for the reporting of possible abuse, it now requires local churches to operate an “organization or office” for potential victims to make claims. It also makes it clear that the church should refrain from trying to muzzle not only those who claim abuse but also any witnesses.
Procedural updates in the new version harmonize the 2019 law with norms to protect minors. It reaffirms that minors are under 18 and keeps a ban on the trafficking and use of pornography that exploits minors or people without full capacity of reason. Any abuse of minors must be “rapidly” communicated to the cleric in charge of the area, and if it involves the bishop in charge, then a pontifical representative, or ambassador, in the area must be notified.
The new law reaffirms a commitment to a “presumption of innocence” for all accused officials and clerics and does not require clerics to report accusations to civil authorities. The Vatican has long argued that in some countries, reporting claims to law enforcement could result in the ostracizing of victims and potentially a death sentence for the accused. Some victims’ groups consider this an excuse to avoid greater accountability.
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