Pope Francis requires Catholic priests and nuns to report sex abuse

Pope Francis requires Catholic priests and nuns to report sex abuse

Peter Isley has been disappointed by the Catholic Church so many times, he’s lost count. 

Isley, a survivor of sexual abuse and one of the founding members of Ending Clergy Abuse, read Thursday’s news from the Vatican, and felt another wave of frustration. The Catholic Church, Isley said, just doesn’t get it. 

On Thursday, Pope Francis issued a new law that requires all Catholic priests and nuns to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-up by their superiors to church authorities. Described by some media outlets as a “groundbreaking” new law, advocates who have pushed for more transparency from the Catholic Church say this is just more of the same. 

The problem, according to Isley and other advocates, is that the church doesn’t need to get itself any more involved – it needs outside input. Specifically, it needs local law enforcement to be part of the reporting process. 

“Bishops reporting to themselves, that’s been the problem from the beginning,” Isley said. “All they did was add another layer of bureaucracy; this doesn’t require civil authorities. What we need are police and prosecutors. 

“Let’s get the bishop to the crime scene first? Geez, that is not the guy you want. They need to watch ‘Law & Order’ to understand how this should work.” 

The new law provides whistleblower protections for anyone making a report. It also states that dioceses around the world must have a system in place to receive allegations confidentially. And it outlines procedures for conducting preliminary investigations when the accused is a bishop, cardinal or religious superior.

But as Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), points out, most clergy have no background in conducting investigations. That should be left to the experts. 

“If the church was truly listening to the pulse of the public and of survivors, they would know that they should be mandating priests and nuns report everything to outside, secular authorities,” Hiner said.

“I get the argument that in some places of the world Catholics are discriminated against. However, for most of the world, that’s not the case. In most of the world we have police and prosecutors who care about local communities and want to keep them safe, and that’s who we charge to get to the bottom of things like this,” he said.

The new law is the latest effort from Francis to respond to the global eruption of the sex abuse and cover-up scandal that has devastated the credibility of the Catholic hierarchy for the past few decades. It also provides a new legal framework for U.S. bishops to use as they prepare to adopt accountability measures of their own next month.

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

But the law doesn’t require them to report the incident to police, which advocates say is a problem. And as a result, Hiner doesn’t see the new law making much, if any, of a difference.

When he woke up Thursday morning and saw headlines about the “groundbreaking” news from Francis, he felt some hope. But after reading the law’s details, he just shook his head.  

“This morning I got so many emails that said, ‘look, more of the status quo’ and ‘it’s just business as usual,'” Hiner said. “This is yet another example of the church not getting it, and of survivors (being) overlooked and not heard.”  

The law can be applied retroactively, too, which means priests and nuns must report even old cases of abuse and cover-up and will be protected for doing so. The pope also mandated that victims be welcomed, heard and supported by the clergy’s hierarchy and offered spiritual, medical and psychological assistance. But there is no requirement about financial reparations. 

Victims and advocates have long argued that bishops and religious superiors have escaped justice for having engaged in sexual misconduct themselves or failed to protect their flocks from predator priests. Bishops and religious superiors are accountable only to the pope, and only a handful have been sanctioned or removed because particularly egregious misbehavior became public.

And this new law, Isley said, won’t change much. 

“This isn’t just about letting us down,” he said. “It’s about leaving children at risk. Around the world, right now, kids are at risk of being hurt. The church fails survivors over and over again – they make promises it’ll get better, and then those promises are broken.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

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