Joseph Inokotong, Abuja
In a response to mounting public pressure on the Catholic Church to improve accountability after a string of abuse scandals involving senior clergy, Pope Francis is enacting new rules for investigating bishops over sexual abuse or its coverup.
The new church law 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.
According to the law, 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 Catholic Church states that 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,” said the Church.
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.