Rev. Thomas Reese: The Success of Pope Francis’ New Sex Abuse Reporting Rules Depends on Enforcement

Pope Francis attends an ecumenical and interreligious meeting with young people in Skopje, North Macedonia, on May 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

Learning from what he calls “the bitter lessons of the past,” Pope Francis has issued the most comprehensive response of his papacy to the sex abuse crisis.

The new document requires bishops, priests and religious to report sexual abuse and cover-ups to church officials and sets up new procedures for investigating bishops.

It also tells bishops to follow local laws governing reporting of abuse to civil authorities.

This is a major step forward for the Vatican. In dealing with not only abuse but also cover-ups, the pope has responded to demands that bishops be held accountable for not protecting children from abusive priests. It also responds to those who complained that the February sex abuse summit in Rome, to which the pope called leading bishops from all over the world, was all talk and no action. Now Francis has acted.

The new norms apply not only to abuse of minors (those under 18) but also to abuse of other vulnerable people, as well as anyone forced “by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts.” This includes adult seminarians, novices and women religious.

The May 9 document, “Vos estis lux mundi” (“You are the light of the world”), applies to all bishops, priests and religious throughout the world. It also encourages lay people to report abuse or cover-up. Those reporting must be protected from any “prejudice, retaliation or discrimination.” Nor can accusers or victims be required to keep silent about their accusations. And if the victims request it, they must be informed of the results of the investigation.

Bishops are required to set up procedures for reporting and investigating accusations against priests by June 1, 2020. U.S. dioceses already have such procedures, but they are lacking in many dioceses in the Global South. In the U.S. the procedures currently apply only to priests, not bishops.

Under the new norms, accusations of abuse or cover-up against a bishop are to be reported to his archbishop, also called a metropolitan, or to the Vatican. The metropolitan reports the accusations to Rome, which then empowers him to investigate. If an archbishop or cardinal is accused, it is reported to Rome, which will assign a prelate to investigate him.

Status reports on any investigation must be sent by the archbishop to Rome every 30 days, with the final report within 90 days, although extensions can be granted when needed.

The norms are not perfect, but they are a major step forward.

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Source: Religion News Service