Is the Catholic Church above the law

"No one in the church hierarchy is above the law"

Rome, 9.5.19 ( The criticism was great after the anti-abuse summit in the Vatican at the end of February. He did not provide anything concrete. Now the Pope is giving the world church more precise norms: On Thursday he drastically tightened canon law norms on sexual abuse.

Roland Juchem

"It takes concreteness" in the fight against abuse, Pope Francis had said when he opened the world-renowned anti-abuse summit in the Vatican at the end of February. With the norms published on Thursday against abusers and those who cover them, the Vatican presented concrete measures two and a half months later.

Investigations against cover-ups regulated for the first time

The motu proprio “Vos estis lux mundi” (You are the light of the world) obliges all clerics and members of religious and spiritual communities to report suspected abuse. At the same time, those who pass on such information will be protected. For the first time, investigations against bishops who have covered up, omitted or delayed investigations are regulated. Church authorities are also obliged to support state criminal investigators in their work.

No worldwide reporting to authorities

The Pope does not issue a worldwide canonical obligation to report suspected cases to state authorities. In states with anti-Christian regimes this would be too dangerous. However, where bishops' conferences have already issued an obligation to report to state bodies, this remains unaffected by the new decree. Article 19 expressly requires compliance with state laws. In Switzerland, since March 1st, church officials have also been obliged to report the case to the state judiciary in the case of adult victims if they suspect an official offense has been committed.

Establishment of reporting offices within a year

Furthermore, each diocese should have set up an easily accessible public reporting point for suspected abuse and cover-up within one year. Many dioceses have had something like this for years, but elsewhere it is still a problem. If a diocese does not manage or does not want to do this by the beginning of June 2020, the bishops' conference would certainly help or the nuncio would remind them to do so, said Malta's Archbishop Charles Scicluna when presenting the new norms.

Believers can be more accountable

For Scicluna, one of the driving forces behind church measures against abuse, the new "epochal decree" empowers the faithful as a whole to demand more accountability and transparency from bishops and religious superiors. "Nobody in the ecclesiastical hierarchy is above the law," said the archbishop.

News from US bishops

The Pope has taken up proposals from the US bishops with two important innovations. For example, allegations against a bishop should first be investigated by his metropolitan archbishop. They can get expert help from laypeople - for example in the field of IT in cases of child pornography, but above all from psychologists and lawyers. The archbishop is commissioned and instructed by the responsible Vatican authority. In the event of a metropolitan bias, the curia appoints a third person.

Reporting a case of abuse does not violate official secrecy

The new norms also pick up on Cardinal Reinhard Marx's accusation at the crisis summit that the so-called “Papal Secret” was often over-interpreted and thus prevented an explanation. Article 4 regulates that anyone who reports suspected abuse does not violate official secrecy. In this regard, he must also not be imposed on him to remain silent.

Any form of abuse of authority

In addition, the term abuse is expanded to include any form of abuse of authority. "It also affects the abuse of women religious by priests, or that of seminarians or novices by their superiors," said the head of the Bishops' Congregation, Cardinal Marc Ouellet in a statement.

Since seminarians are lay people under canon law, according to Scicluna, the new norms also apply in the case of other adults, provided that they are somehow spiritually and psychologically dependent on the perpetrator. The boundaries to consensual actions between adults are likely to be fluid in individual cases.

Accelerated processing

Overall, the processing of possible cases of abuse is to be accelerated. Preliminary examinations in the country itself must be completed after 90 days. Scicluna mentions the average duration of the subsequent actual judicial or administrative process as one year, and another six months for appeal proceedings. What he still wishes for: That victims are more involved in the process.

Mutual information

For a better and faster processing, the responsible Vatican authorities are obliged for the first time to inform each other. A lack of coordination and information has often resulted in delays in proceedings.

Clearer procedural rules, no new criminal offenses

The new Motu Proprio includes clearer and expanded procedural rules. It does not tighten penalties or create new criminal offenses. The criminal offense of failure to deal with cases of abuse or even their cover-up by bishops or religious superiors was already created with the motu proprio “Come una madre amorevole” from 2016; "Vos estis lux" offers the previously missing implementation provisions. (cic)

© Catholic Media Center, May 9th, 2019
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