Health & Spirit

With sweeping new reforms, Vatican adopts most concrete steps to date to address sex abuse, investigating bishops

Jeremy Roebuck, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Religious News

Vowing that clergy sex abuse should "never happen again," the Vatican on Thursday issued a sweeping set of new reforms aimed a revolutionizing how the Roman Catholic Church polices priests and holds members of its hierarchy accountable for failures to protect the faithful.

The new church laws, signed by Pope Francis, require dioceses worldwide to create systems for receiving anonymous abuse complaints and provide whistleblower protections for those who do so from within the hierarchy's ranks.

The guidelines also lay out new procedures for conducting investigations when a bishop, cardinal or religious superior is the subject of an abuse claim – a problem that has particularly vexed the church in the United States.

The regulations mark the most concrete steps Francis has taken yet in response to a crisis that has come to overwhelm his papacy and arrive three months after he convened a worldwide summit of church leaders to develop solutions to the problem.

Many victims and their advocates in the United States panned that meeting when it ended with few specific reforms in place -- especially after the series of scandals that roiled the church in 2017, including a scathing grand jury report in Pennsylvania, dozens of new investigations by state and federal authorities, and the defrocking of American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose alleged abuse of young boys and seminarians was said to have been an open secret within the hierarchy for years.

Many of the new reforms -- outlined in an edict known as a motu propio and entitled "You are the light of the world" -- have been in place in the United States since the early 2000s, when the nation's prelates issued their own set of localized regulations as the first wave of the clergy sex abuse crisis rocked the American church.


For instance, the rules issued Thursday require all of the world's 415,000 Catholic priests and 660,000 religious sisters to report suspected abuse -- a policy similar to one U.S. dioceses adopted nearly two decades ago.

But unlike the U.S. version, the Vatican stopped short of requiring clerics to report those claims to police or other civil authorities, acknowledging that doing so could put priests in danger in parts of the world where Catholics are a persecuted minority.

Still, American prelates appeared to have influenced the new policies in other significant ways, most notably in a new process established for investigating claims of abuse or cover-up involving a bishop.

Critics in the U.S. have long complained that bishops, who are accountable only to the pope, have escaped justice for failing to adequately respond to abuse or, in some cases, committing acts of sexual misconduct themselves.


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