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Pope Francis is enacting new rules for investigating bishops over sexual abuse or its coverup, responding to mounting public pressure on the Catholic Church to improve accountability after a string of abuse scandals involving senior clergy.

The new church law, laid out on Thursday, requires all dioceses in the world to set up a “public, stable and easily accessible” process for reporting allegations of abuse, including by bishops and cardinals, that protects victims and whistleblowers. It says dioceses have to report allegations about bishops without delay to the Vatican, which must decide within a month whether to launch an investigation, take immediate disciplinary action or close the case.

The new rules seek to address complaints that the church lacked standard procedures for pursuing bishops and heads of religious orders accused of committing or covering up sex abuse. They don’t address the long-running divisions in the church over how strictly to punish wrongdoers in abuse cases. Bishops in most countries have rejected the U.S. church’s call for all abusers to be permanently removed from ministry.

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The church’s troubles over sex abuse were reignited in 2018 by scandals involving cardinals and bishops in the U.S., Latin America, Europe and Australia. Growing disillusionment among Catholics threatens to overshadow the pontificate of Pope Francis, who after taking office in 2013 inspired popular hopes of a church more in tune with modern society.

The pope’s credibility has suffered from criticism that he didn’t take seriously allegations of abuse, misconduct or coverup by bishops including former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, Australian Cardinal George Pell and French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin.

In November, the Vatican frustrated U.S. bishops by blocking them from voting on new measures aimed at holding bishops more accountable for abuse or failing to act against it.

On Thursday the head of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, welcomed the new law, saying in a statement that it “leaves latitude for national bishops’ conferences…to specify still more to account for their local circumstances.”

But the U.S. bishops’ leading lay adviser on child protection, Francesco Cesareo, said the new legislation could stifle one element of the U.S. bishops’ proposals: the establishment of a national commission of laypersons to oversee the investigation of bishops. The pope’s new law instead gives responsibility for investigations to local bishops acting under Vatican direction.

In February, Pope Francis presided over a four-day global summit of bishops at the Vatican to address the problem of clerical sex abuse. The pope called for an “all-out battle” against abuse, but the meeting produced few specific measures.

The new rules outlined on Thursday aim to address criticism of a lack of concrete reforms. They stipulate that reporting systems for abuse allegations, whether run by church officials or outsiders on behalf of the church, must ensure the privacy and protection of accusers and victims. Such systems are common in the U.S. and other wealthy countries but less so in the developing world, church officials say.

“If enforced, there’s no doubt the new law will improve the church’s internal processing of allegations,” said Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, a Boston-based group that tracks abuse cases. “But it has three obvious weaknesses: it stipulates no penalties for ignoring the law, it mandates no transparency, and it doesn’t require that abusers be removed permanently from the priesthood.”

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, stressed that the new law covers not only sexual abuse of minors but “abuse of authority” that forces adults to perform sexual acts. He told the Vatican newspaper the new law thus applies to the “abuse of nuns by clerics or the abuse of seminarians or novices by their superiors.”

“This sends a signal that leadership is subject not only to civil law but canon law,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, adjunct secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said at the Vatican on Thursday. He said he would explain the law to congregants in Malta like this: “If I break the rules, you must tell the pope, ‘look, our bishop is a bad person.’”

When complaints are made against bishops, they must be referred to the Vatican right away, unless determined to be patently unfounded. The Vatican is required to decide within 30 days whether to order an investigation and, if so, which bishop or other church official will lead the probe.

The local metropolitan, or senior bishop in the region, would be the presumptive investigator, but the Vatican may choose another if the metropolitan is under investigation himself or is judged incapable for some other reason. He may draw on the expertise of laypersons in conducting the probe. The investigation must ordinarily be completed within 90 days.

The new legislation, which takes effect June 1, also states that all clergy and nuns are required to report any evidence of child sex abuse, possession of child pornography, sexual assault of adults or coverup to their superiors or to the Vatican’s local representative. This requirement doesn’t apply to information transmitted during the sacrament of confession, which priests are forbidden to divulge under pain of excommunication. The law doesn’t expressly require the church to report abuse allegations to secular authorities, but says priests and nuns should comply with local laws.



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