Pope Issues Law, With Penalties, for Vatican City to Address Sexual Abuse

ROME — Pope Francis has issued a highly anticipated law for Vatican City officials and diplomats overseas to tackle sexual abuse, setting up what is intended to be a model for the Roman Catholic Church worldwide by requiring, for the first time, that accusations be immediately reported to Vatican prosecutors.

The Vatican characterized the law — and accompanying pastoral guidelines — as a reflection of the most advanced thinking on preventing and addressing sexual abuse in the church. The law, dated March 26, calls on church authorities to listen immediately to people who say they are victims and to report any credible allegations to prosecutors.

Those who fail to report could be subjected to financial penalties and jail time.

“Protection of minors and vulnerable people is an essential part of the evangelical message that the church and all of its members are called to spread across the world.” the pope wrote in a personal edict enacting the law. Francis said he wanted to “strengthen the institutional and regulatory framework to prevent and tackle abuses against minors and vulnerable people.”

In a statement on Friday, Alessandro Gisotti, the Vatican’s spokesman, said that Pope Francis had hoped that though the measures applied to the Vatican City State and its administration, “everyone might develop in their awareness that the church must always be ever increasingly a safe home for children and vulnerable persons.”

The pope wrote, “Everyone’s awareness increases that abuses need to be reported to the competent authorities, and for the need to cooperate with them in prevention and counteraction activities.”

But the law also makes clear that clerics should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that if condemned in a fair Vatican trial, they should be removed for their posts and, in the case of a priest, be subjected to the penalties of canon law.

In fact, the pope, who has made mercy a cornerstone of his pontificate, provided for the care of those found guilty.

Francis wrote that those convicted of “abuse against minors or vulnerable people should be removed from their responsibilities and, at the same time, given an adequate support for psychological and spiritual rehabilitation, also with the goal of social reintegration.”

Church officials had announced that the law was in the works at the conclusion of a meeting last month of leading bishops and cardinals at the Vatican to address the scourge of clergy sexual abuse. Francis had convened the meeting amid a renewed sense of crisis in the church.

Civil investigations into abuse by Catholic clerics in the United States, Australia, Chile, France and other countries had exposed once again the systemic problem of abusive priests exploiting their office and prelates covering up misconduct.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s doctrinal watchdog, is also expected to issue to its bishops around the world a handbook of best practices for preventing and reporting abuse in the church.

Mr. Gisotti, the Vatican’s spokesman, noted that the three documents issued by the pope responded to “the concrete demands expressed by the People of God to address the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors.” Together, they “reinforce the protection of minors by strengthening the normative framework,” he added.

The three documents signed by Francis — the personal edict on the protection of minors and vulnerable persons; the new law for the Vatican City State that extends to the Roman Curia; and the pastoral guidelines — “somehow represent the first fruit” of the meeting held at the Vatican last month, Andrea Tornielli, the editorial director of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, wrote in an explanatory note released by the Vatican.

Though the norms and guidelines refer specifically to the Vatican State, where, Mr. Tornielli noted, there are many clerics but “very few children,” he said they were nevertheless “exemplary” in that they took into account “the most advanced international” thinking on the matter.

In the personal edict, the pope affirms a “significant principle,” Mr. Tornielli wrote. “Everyone must become aware of the duty to report abuses to the competent authorities and to cooperate with them” in preventing abuses.

The fact that the pope also signed the other two documents, which could have been issued by other Vatican institutions, “indicates the importance he wanted to give these norms,” Mr. Tornielli wrote.

The pastoral guidelines drafted for Vatican City are considerably shorter than those drafted by bishops’ conferences around the world, given that there are only two parishes in Vatican City and few children residing there, he noted.

The new law has many significant measures: All crimes relating to the abuse of minors, not just those of a sexual nature, will be dealt with automatically, even in the absence of a specific complaint. The law also establishes “the obligation to report and to sanction the public official who fails to report to the Vatican judicial authority abuses of which he has become aware,” except through confession.

Those sanctions would apply to members of the Vatican State, the Roman Curia and those among diplomatic personnel at the service of the nunciatures, who function as public officials (more than 90 percent of those who work in the Vatican or for the Holy See).

The establishment of a service for victims of abuse within the Vatican will provide them with “someone to turn to for help, to receive medical and psychological assistance, to be made aware of their rights and how to enforce them,” Mr. Tornielli wrote.

Though the edict includes some of the recommendations made by victims groups to summit organizers last month, some measures were not feasible, said Francesco Zanardi, the president of Rete L’Abuso, the first support group for clerical abuse survivors in Italy, in a statement.

Mr. Zanardi welcomed, for example, the establishment inside the Vatican of a structure that would assist victims of abuse, but wondered whether victims had to travel to the Vatican to get the support. “This is unacceptable,” he said.

The law also says “vulnerable people” — including the sick, people with a physical or mental disability, and people with limited personal freedom — are entitled to the same protection as minors.

“It’s an important clarification because it extends to adults who might not be able to resist abuse because they are in situations where they are in positions of inferiority to their superiors,” said Gerard O’Connell, a journalist who has long covered the Vatican. It could also extend to clerics who sexually abuse nuns.

The wording “comes out of what they have seen in recent cases that have turned up, involving various categories of people,” Mr. O’Connell said.

He said that the February meeting “gave a sense of great urgency that the Vatican had to get its own house in order.”

At the time, the meeting’s moderator, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, had said that the edict had already been drafted and would be soon released.

“It’s notable that the pope approved all three. He’s obviously pushing the point,” Mr. O’Connell said.

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