Vatican Tells Bishops to Report Sex Abuse to Police (but Doesn’t Require It)
ROME — The Vatican has told bishops around the world to report cases of clerical sex abuse to civil authorities even where local laws don’t require it — a step that abuse victims and their advocates have demanded over the decades in which the scandal has roiled the Roman Catholic Church.
The Vatican also urged bishops to investigate even abuse claims that seem to be “doubtful,” or are made anonymously, rather than dismissing them outright.
But the new instructions are not binding and were not enshrined in the church’s canon law, prompting criticism that the Vatican still gives bishops too much leeway in judging the conduct of their priests. The instructions were instead part of a new handbook intended to guide bishops and religious superiors who may have little experience handling abuse cases.
“What is important to remember today is that it is still allowable under canon law for a bishop to not report a priest who is raping a child; it is still allowed for thousands of the world’s bishops,” Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a victims advocacy and research group, said in a telephone interview.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which has long called for mandatory reporting to the police, called the new guidance “a step forward, but the smallest of steps.”
The change comes after three popes over three decades have tried to manage an abuse scandal that has involved tens of thousands of accusations against priests and clerics.
Pope Francis, who was elected in 2013, has gone further than his predecessors, experts say, in trying to establish a universal set of practices for a global church, consulting abuse victims and laypeople and urging church leaders to cooperate with civil authorities.
But Francis has also been accused of falling short of actually enacting into law the forceful reforms he has advocated. An unprecedented sexual abuse summit at the Vatican in February 2019 raised hopes that a turning point had been reached, but it fell short of providing the clear global battle plan that Catholics have demanded.
Critics say the biggest, perennial problem for the church has been the lack of transparency and the continued failure to hold bishops accountable.
The first of the pope’s 21 recommendations to bishops when the Vatican conference began was to develop a “practical handbook indicating the steps to be taken by authorities at key moments when a case emerges.” The guidelines issued Thursday checked that box.
For years, bishops have tried to handle abuse cases internally, using church investigators, tribunals and commissions in their own dioceses before cases are forwarded to the Vatican office known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Last year, Pope Francis issued a church law that obligated bishops — for the first time — to report accusations of clergy sexual abuse to their superiors.
Until now, though, the Vatican had expected bishops to report abuse accusations to the police and prosecutors only when required by law. Many countries, and some American states, do not have such laws.
The new instructions — issued Thursday by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — are likely to have the most impact in countries that do not have a well-developed system for handling abuse cases, said the Rev. Hans Zollner, a member of the Vatican’s child-protection commi...