VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Saturday updated a 2019 church law aimed at holding senior churchmen accountable for covering up sexual abuse cases, expanding it to cover lay Catholic leaders and reaffirming that vulnerable adults and not just children can be victims of abuse when they are unable to freely consent.
With the update, Francis made permanent temporary provisions that were passed in 2019 in a moment of crisis for the Vatican and Catholic hierarchy. The law was praised at the time for laying out precise mechanisms to investigate complicit bishops and religious superiors, even though it amounted to bishops policing fellow bishops without any requirement that civil law enforcement be informed.
But implementation has been uneven, and abuse survivors have criticized the Vatican for a continued lack of transparency about the cases. Their advocates said a wholesale overhaul was necessary, not just Saturday’s minor modifications.
“The Catholic people were promised that (the law) would be ‘revolutionary,’ a watershed event for holding bishops accountable. But in four years, we’ve seen no significant housecleaning, no dramatic change,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, an online resource that has identified 40 bishops investigated globally under the new protocols.
The new rules conform to other changes in the Catholic Church’s handling of abuse that were issued in the last four years. Most significantly, they are extended to cover leaders of Vatican-approved associations headed by laymen and women, not just clerics.
The expansion is a response to the many cases that have come to light in recent years of lay leaders abusing their authority to sexually exploit people under their spiritual care or authority, most recently the L’Arche federation of Jean Vanier.
The update also reaffirms that adults such as nuns or seminarians who are dependent on their bishops or superiors can be victims of abuse. Church law had long held that only adults who “habitually” lack the use of reason could be considered victims in the same sense as minors.
The 2019 law expanded that definition and it is retained in the update, making clear that adults can be rendered vulnerable to abuse as situations present themselves. The inclusion is significant given resistance in the Vatican to the #MeToo pressure to recognize rank and file parishioners who are abused during spiritual direction by a priest as possible victims.
The definition reads that a victim can be “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offense.”
“This can be read as further manifestation of how the church cares for the frailest and weakest,” said Archbishop Filippo Iannone, prefect of the Vatican’s legal office. “Anyone can be a victim, so there has to be justice. And if the victims are like these (vulnerable adults), then you must intervene to defend their dignity and liberty.”
Francis originally set out the norms as a response to the decades of cover-up exposed by the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report and the scandal over then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was eventually defrocked for abusing adults as well as minors. Francis himself was implicated in that wave of the scandal, after he dismissed claims by victims of a notorious predator in Chile.
After realizing he had erred, Francis ordered up a full review of the Chilean abuse dossier, summoned the presidents of bishops’ conferences to Rome for a four-day summit on safeguarding and set in motion plans for a new law to hold senior churchmen to account for abuse and cover-ups.
The 2019 law and its update Saturday contain explicit standards for investigating bishops and superiors, but entrusts other bishops to do the work. It also mandates all church personnel to report allegations of clergy abuse in-house, though it doesn’t mandate reporting of abuse by lay leaders and refrains from requiring any reporting to police. The new law expands whistleblower protections and reaffirms the presumption of innocence of the accused.
The update makes clear each diocese must have an office to receive complaints, a more specific requirement than the original call for a mere “system,” such as an email address. The change derived from Francis’ realization that many dioceses, particularly in poorer parts of the world, dragged their feet.
The pope recently warned there was a “clear and present danger” of abuse in areas with fewer financial resources.
“Maybe upwards of two-thirds of the bishops’ conferences around the world haven’t really had the type of capacity-building and resources to implement process this in any meaningful way,” said the Rev. Andrew Small, secretary of the pope’s child protection advisory board.
Survivors have long complained that the Vatican spent decades turning a blind eye to bishops and religious superiors who moved predator priests around from parish to parish rather than report them to police.
The 2019 law attempted to respond to those complaints, but victims’ advocates have faulted the Holy See for continued secrecy about the investigations and outcomes. The most egregious recent case concerned the secret sanctions imposed in 2021 on East Timor Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Small agreed that abuse survivors, as well as the broader Catholic flock, must at the very least be informed of case outcomes.
“Part of the process of justice, let alone healing, is the awareness that people were held accountable for their actions,” he said. “And we’re not anywhere near where we should be on that.”