Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta speaks at a news conference May 9. CNS Photo/Robert Duncan

No more silence on abuse

By  Carol Glatz
  • May 16, 2019

Vatican City -- Sweeping new Church laws issued by Pope Francis to protect minors and hold bishops accountable reinforce the message that the days of covering up or ignoring abuse allegations are over, said the Vatican’s top abuse investigator.

The new norms send “a very strong message that disclosure is the order of the day, and not silence,” when it comes to abuse of minors and abuses of power, said Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The archbishop spoke to reporters at the Vatican May 9 following release of Pope Francis’ apostolic letter Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”). 

The document updates and clarifies norms and procedures for making bishops and religious superiors responsible for safeguarding minors, members of religious orders and seminarians from abuse. 

The new laws apply across the universal Church and make it clear that bishops and religious leaders are obligated and will be held accountable when it comes to reporting suspected abuse, initiating investigations, protecting victims and defending whistleblowers.

Every diocese in the world is now required to create a public reporting system that makes it easy for anyone to register suspected cases of abuse or coverup. Bishops no longer have any discretion when it comes to acting on abuse allegations: they must report and respond to every suspected case. And should a bishop or religious superior be accused of abuse or coverup, they would be reported to the Vatican and investigated within 90 days by their metropolitan bishop.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, said the new norms make the heads of dioceses responsible for alerting the proper Vatican authorities of all forms of suspected abuse, including the possession, distribution or creation of pornography involving a minor.

Canada’s bishops called the new norms “a substantial document and a positive step as it clarifies a number of issues with regard to reporting and standardizing the procedures throughout the Church, in order to make Church leadership more transparent, responsible and accountable.”

“The CCCB will study the new norms and take the necessary steps to ensure that bishops are properly informed so that they may implement them in their dioceses/eparchies in a manner which complements and enhances the CCCB guidelines released in 2018,” said a statement from the bishops’ conference.

The new norms are important, Scicluna said, because they clearly tell people they have an obligation to report already existing crimes, negligence and inappropriate behaviour to Church authorities. That obligation “has always been there, but experience shows us that either a closed-shop mentality or a misplaced interest in protecting the institution was hindering disclosure,” he said.

The now universal law that mandates all clerics, as well as men and women religious, to report abuse to the competent ecclesiastical authorities is important, he said, “because it makes disclosure the main policy of the Church.”

Procedures have already been in place when it comes to accusations of abuse of minors by priests, so the new norms address what to do when the accused is a bishop, cardinal, patriarch or religious superior. 

The new laws, particularly with their emphasis on having an impartial investigation of leaders, send the message that “no leadership is above the law.”

When asked if victims will be pleased with the new laws, the archbishop said, “victims will be satisfied if the laws give rise to a new culture.”

“I would never go to a person who has suffered, give them a piece of paper and say that we have fixed everything. People need concrete responses and action, which is why I am telling people, ‘Help the Pope so that his desire (to prevent abuse) becomes a reality in your dioceses.’”

The New Regulations

Pope Francis has established new regulations to make Church leaders responsible for safeguarding minors, investigating sexual abuse allegations and eliminating cover-ups. Here are some highlights:

• Bishops, cardinals, patriarchs, religious superiors will be held accountable not only for suspected cases of committing abuse, but also accusations of having interfered with, covered up or failed to address abuse accusations known to them.  

• When the accused individual is a bishop, the metropolitan will receive a mandate from the Holy See to investigate or delegate a person in charge of the investigation. A status report must be sent to the Holy See every 30 days, and the investigation completed within 90 days with some exceptions. 

• By June 2020, every diocese in the world must create an office or “public, stable and easily accessible system” for reporting: suspected abuse against a minor or vulnerable person; failure by bishops or superiors to comply with the new abuse laws; cases of interference or coverups in either a civil or canonical investigation of suspected abuse.

• All priests and religious who become aware of abuse or its coverup must alert their religious superior promptly.

• Bishops and religious superiors will be accountable not just for protecting minors against abuse but also for protecting seminarians, novices and members of religious orders from violence and sexual abuse stemming from an abuse of power. 

• Those who report abuse cannot be subjected to pressure, retaliation and discrimination or told to keep silent. The seal of confession, however, remains inviolable.

• Church leaders must obey civil laws regarding mandatory reporting.

• People who report suspected abuse or coverup will be told of the outcome of the investigation if they request to be informed.

• A fund can be established to cover the costs of investigations.

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