Pope Francis on Thursday announced new internal laws to address clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that represent a step in the right direction. With these reforms, the Vatican is showing a willingness to tackle systematically and globally a crisis that has plagued the church for decades.
Advocates and survivors say more work needs to be done — and they are right, but for the first time the church has laid out an internal process requiring priests and nuns worldwide to report incidents of clergy sexual abuse of minors and adults at any level, including any coverup attempts. It directs churches to establish, within a year, “one or more public, stable and easily accessible systems for submission” of confidential complaints, including old cases.
It also sets a timeline of 90 days to complete initial investigations of abuse allegations and allows for the assistance of laity, like civilian experts and church faithful, in those investigations. And it protects those coming forward to report from “prejudice, retaliation or discrimination.”
The new laws, outlined in a decree titled “You are the Light of the World,” take effect June 1. “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 order that these phenomena, in all their forms, never happen again, a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church.”
Yet one key element is missing, and it’s troubling many victims and their advocates. The new process rests entirely within the church’s purview. In other words, it doesn’t mandate the reporting of sexual abuse allegations to law enforcement (although it does say that church officials should comply with investigations by police or other civil authorities). Additionally, the pope didn’t outline punitive sanctions for violations of the reporting and investigative procedures.
SNAP, a network of survivors of clergy sexual abuse, lauded some components, like the whistle-blower protections for priests and nuns who do come forward, but agreed that the church is not credible enough to police itself. “Oversight from external, secular authorities will better protect children and deter coverups,” according to a SNAP statement.
Church officials have argued against obligatory reporting to law enforcement because they worry it would lead to priests being persecuted, particularly in parts of the world where Catholics are a minority. Pope Francis should be reminded this has never been about persecution — it’s about prosecution of sexual abusers and those who enable them.
Until the church acknowledges the difference, full accountability for abusive priests and due justice for their victims will continue to remain elusive. The best practices for combatting clergy sexual abuse must include a comprehensive internal process paired with clear penalties and the involvement of civil authorities.