VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Saturday updated a 2019 church law aimed at holding senior churchmen accountable for covering up cases of sex abuse, expanding it to cover lay Catholic leaders and reaffirming that vulnerable adults can also be victims of abuse when they are unable to consent.
Francis reaffirmed and made permanent the temporary provisions of the 2019 law that were passed in a moment of crisis for the Vatican and Catholic hierarchy. That law had been praised at the time for laying out precise mechanisms to investigate complicit bishops and religious superiors, but its implementation has been uneven and the Vatican has been criticized by abuse survivors for continued lack of transparency about the cases.
The new rules conform to other changes in the Catholic Church’s handling of abuse that have been issued since then. Most significantly, they are expanded to cover leaders of Vatican-approved associations headed by lay leaders, not just clerics. That 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.
They also reaffirm that even adults can be victims of predator priests, such as nuns or seminarians who are dependent on their bishops or superiors. Church law previously considered that only adults who “habitually” lack the use of reason can be considered victims alongside minors.
The new law makes clear that adults can be rendered vulnerable to abuse even occasionally, as situations present themselves. That is significant given resistance in the Vatican to expanding its abuse rules to cover adults.
It states that a vulnerable person is “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.”
Francis originally set out the norms in 2019 as a response to the latest chapter in the decades-long crisis, focused on a cover-up exposed by a Pennsylvania grand jury report and the scandal over then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. 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 wholescale review of the Chilean abuse dossier, summoned the presidents of all the world’s 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 coverup, and to mandate that all cases be reported in-house.
The law and its update Saturday contain explicit norms for investigating bishops accused of abuse or cover-up — a direct response to the McCarrick case, given it was well-known in Vatican circles and in some U.S. church circles that he slept with his seminarians. The law contained precise timelines to initiate investigations if allegations were well-founded, and that has been retained with some modifications.
The law also mandates all church personnel to report allegations of clergy abuse in-house, though it refrains from mandating reporting to the police. The new law expands whistleblower protections and reaffirms the need to protect the reputation of those accused.
Survivors have long complained that the Vatican for decades turned a blind eye to bishops and religious superiors who covered up cases of abuse, moving predator priests around from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police. The 2019 law attempted to respond to those complaints, but victims have faulted the Holy See for continued secrecy about the investigations and outcomes.