Pope Francis introduced sweeping changes in Catholic Church law on Thursday local time to hold bishops accountable for sexual abuse or covering it up, making reporting obligatory for clerics and allowing anyone to complain directly to the Vatican if needed.
The decree is the second such papal provision since a summit on abuse by senior Church bishops at the Vatican in February and comes after the Church was rocked in March by news of the conviction on charges of sex abuse of Australian cardinal George Pell, the highest-ranked Vatican official to be convicted.
It’s the latest effort by Pope Francis 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.
And it provides a new legal framework for US bishops to use as they prepare to adopt accountability measures next month to respond to the scandal there.
“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.”
It sets time limits for local investigations and the Vatican’s response to them and allows for retroactive reporting.
It also says bishops with conflicts of interest should recuse themselves from investigations and that they can also be held accountable for abuse of power in sexual relations with adults.
The 19-article decree, called “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” (You Are the Light of the World), raises to 18 from 16 the age of adulthood in cases of sexual abuse. It also covers possession of child pornography.
The decree says local Church officials cannot order those who report abuse to remain silent and that senior bishops should make provisions to prevent documents from being destroyed by subordinates if needed.
Clerics should follow local law on whether they are obliged to report alleged sexual abuse to civil authorities.