Pope lays down strict new rules for reporting of sexual abuse

Pope Francis does the sign of the cross during his weekly general audience

The impact "likely will be felt most intensely outside the West, since places such as the US, Canada and some parts of Western Europe (though, ironically, not the pope's backyard in Italy), already have fairly robust reporting systems", said Vatican expert John Allen, on the online religious newspaper Crux Now.

Although the law existed before, it has now been made mandatory for every diocese to report the cases. 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. "They are not above the law, and if they do wrong, they must be reported". Those reporting must be protected from any "prejudice, retaliation or discrimination".

The now universal law of mandating all clerics, as well as men and women religious, to report to the competent ecclesiastical authorities the abuses of which they become aware is important, he said, "because it makes disclosure the main policy of the church". The new document establishes and clarifies norms and procedures for holding bishops and religious superiors accountable when it comes to safeguarding minors as well as abuses carried out against adults with violence, threats or an abuse of authority.

"Bishops watching bishops does not work", she said.

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Pope Francis has vowed to combat the sexual abuse of nuns and urged religious sisters to just say no when clergy want to use them as maids.

Peter Isely, abuse survivor and director of the advocacy group Ending Clergy Abuse, also criticized the law for not requiring bishops to report sexual abuse to legal authorities.

"The problem of victims who in the past have been told to keep silent is also addressed".

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.

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The Metropolitan, in conducting the investigations, can avail himself of the help of "qualified persons", according to "the needs of the individual case and, in particular, taking into account the cooperation that can be offered by the lay faithful".

The fact that there are still countries where the church does not provide a clear and permanent place or way to report abuse shows "this universal law was needed" and that having structures for disclosure is "no longer an option", it is a papally mandated law, Archbishop Scicluna said. "A law without penalties is not a law at all - it's a suggestion", she added. The metropolitan reports the accusations to Rome, which then empowers him to investigate.

The new norms dealing with cover-ups are a good first step, but in civil society as in the church, good laws are not enough.

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. And in a novelty, the law requires that if victims request it, they must be informed of the outcome of the investigation - again a response to longstanding complaints that victims are kept in the dark about how their claims were handled.

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The new rules come into force on June 1 and will be re-evaluated after a three-year trial period.

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