New Rule on Sex Abuse Empowers Archbishops to Do Investigations

By Fr Joachim Omolo Ouko, AJ

Pope Francis has approved the first overarching child protection policy for Vatican city-state, mandating that all the personnel of the Catholic Church's headquarters report any suspicion of abuse of a minor or vulnerable person to the Vatican's judicial authorities.
The new law, which is comprised of 12 short articles that will go into effect June 1, states that any Vatican official or church diplomat who becomes aware of alleged abuse but does not report it can face fines up to 5,000 Euro [Kshs 600,000. In the case of a Vatican police officer, the punishment is up to six months in jail. Vatican officials are now "obliged to present, without delay, a complaint … every time, in the exercise of their office, they become aware of news or reasonable grounds to believe that a minor or vulnerable person has been victim to a crime," Francis explains in the apostolic letter. The first section of the document requires every diocese to establish protocols for reporting clergy sex abuse where they do not exist, and the protocols must be "public, accessible and reliable."

Pope Francis has also indicated to the entire church, from the local bishops to the Vatican dicasteries, that they cannot tarry in dealing with allegations. If a metropolitan informs the Vatican of an allegation against a bishop, the relevant dicastery must respond within 30 days.
The investigator must file a report every 30 days and complete his investigation within 90 days. What that means as a practical matter is that allegations cannot be buried in a backlog of Curial work. Another part of the document deals with the need to protect those who level an allegation of abuse or cover-up. The cover-up of abuse is treated with the same degree of seriousness and in the same way as abuse itself. In his introduction to the apostolic letter, issued 'motu proprio' (on his own initiative), Francis calls protecting minors and vulnerable people "an integral part" of the church's mission.

The pope says he wants a Catholic Church where "every mistreatment or abuse of minors or vulnerable people is effectively prosecuted." The law sets the statute of limitations at 20 years; in the case of a minor the time-frame for the statute is to begin from the alleged victim's 18th birthday. Survivors and their advocates had long criticized the church for not having an overarching child protection policy for Vatican city-state. Some bishops have also quietly levelled criticism, noting that Pope Benedict XVI mandated in 2011 that all the world's national bishops' conferences create such policies but had not implemented one at the Vatican.

The Vatican had also promised the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2014 that it would develop a child protection policy. The law likewise offers protections for those who report suspected abuse and the alleged victim, stating that they are to be cared for and free from "any form of intimidation of reprisal." It also states that the victim is to be offered medical assistance and is to have the right to a lawyer when giving testimony. The law equates the status of a vulnerable person with that of a minor. It defines a vulnerable person as someone who is sick, has physical or mental disabilities, or cannot offer resistance to an action. The pope also names the staff and clergy of the St. Pius X Pre-Seminary, which is run by the Italian diocese of Como but located inside the Vatican.

The Vatican launched an investigation into the seminary last fall after an Italian book included allegations of sexual abuse at the institution, which is primarily a dormitory for young men who act as altar servers during morning Masses at St. Peter's Basilica. The suggestion to empower the nation's metropolitan archbishops to examine accusations made against bishops in their regions of the country corresponds both with the way the church handled such issues in earlier centuries and the current Code of Canon Law, they say. In the Catholic Church, metropolitan archbishops are those who are tasked with both leading an archdiocese and presiding over the bishops in their wider ecclesiastical province. While their role in their provinces has been largely honorific in recent centuries, it was much more expanded in the earlier church.

The possibility of empowering archbishops to investigate allegations made in their provinces was raised at the annual meeting of the bishops' conference in November, when the prelates were considering a number of proposals to respond to this year's spate of revelations of clergy sexual abuse. The U.S. bishops have already announced creation of a new third-party reporting system for receiving allegations of misconduct by prelates.

The system is to consist of a toll-free number and a website where people can report accusations, and is to be active by July 2019. Under Cupich's proposal, the third-party system would then send to the various metropolitan archbishops any allegations that a bishop in their province had sexually abused a minor, an adult, or had been negligent in their handling of abuse cases. In the case where it was the metropolitan himself accused, the allegation would be sent to the most senior bishop in the province.
The proposal makes clear that the allegation is also to be sent to the bishop or archbishop's clergy abuse review board, a structure every diocese is required to have under the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.