Vatican law requires clergy to report sex abuse and cover-ups

A groundbreaking new Vatican law requires that all Catholic priests and nuns around the world report all clergy sexual abuse and cover-up by their superiors to church authorities.

In a new Apostolic letter, Pope Francis made it clear that any sexual advance involving the use of power will now be considered abusive. It is his latest effort to respond to the global eruption of the sex abuse and cover-up scandal that has devastated the credibility of the Catholic hierarchy and his own papacy.

"The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful," Francis wrote.

The law makes the world's 415,000 Catholic priests and 660,000 religious sisters mandated reporters. 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.

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It also provides whistle-blower protections for anyone making a report and requires all dioceses around the world to have a system in place to receive the claims confidentially; and it outlines procedures for conducting preliminary investigations when the accused is a bishop, cardinal or religious superior.

"We have said for years that priests must conform to certain strict rules, so why shouldn't bishops and others in the hierarchy do the same?" said Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican office for bishops. "It's not just a law, but a profound responsibility."

The law doesn't require them to report to police. The Vatican has long argued that doing so could endanger the church in places where Catholics are a persecuted minority. But it does for the first time put into universal church law that they must obey civil reporting requirements where they live, and that their obligation to report to the church in no way interferes with that.

The law defines the crimes that must be reported as: performing sexual acts with a minor or vulnerable person; forcing an adult "by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts," and the production, possession or distribution of child pornography. Cover-up is defined as "actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid" civil or canonical investigations.

If it is implemented fully, the Vatican could well see an avalanche of abuse and cover-up reports in the coming years. It can be applied retroactively, meaning priests and nuns are now required to report even old cases of sexual wrongdoing and cover-ups.

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Previously, such reporting was left up to the conscience of individual priests and nuns. Now it is church law. There are no punitive measures foreseen if they fail to report, and similarly, there are no sanctions foreseen if dioceses, for example, fail to comply.

Victims and their advocates have long complained that bishops and religious superiors have escaped justice for having engaged in sexual misconduct themselves, or failed to protect their flocks from predator priests.

The new procedures call for any claim of sexual misconduct or cover-up against a bishop, religious superior or eastern rite patriarch to be reported to the Holy See and the metropolitan bishop, who is a regular diocesan bishop also responsible for a broader geographic area than his dioceses alone.

The new law does, however, require 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, where each congregation zealously guards its own turf and files.

The U.S. hierarchy has been under immense public pressure to hold one another accountable for sexual misconduct and cover-up stemming from both the ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick scandal and the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. It was apparently an open secret that McCarrick slept with seminarians, and yet his brother bishops allowed him to become their spokesman when they first adopted measures to combat child sex abuse in 2002.

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The law goes into effect on June 1 for an initial three years. Dioceses must establish the reporting system and confirm it is in place to the local Vatican embassy by June 1, 2020.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.