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Pope sets a course for the whole Church with new safety laws to prevent abuse and cover-ups

Pope Francis
Strong message: Pope Francis has put child safety front and centre with new child safety laws. Photo: Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.

BISHOPS in Australia have welcomed a sweeping new law ordering officials in the Church worldwide to report cases of clergy sexual abuse – and attempts to cover it up – to their superiors. 

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the law contained in a new papal document “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” (You are the Light of the World) “sets a course for the whole Church into the future, and there can be no turning back”.  

Many of the measures outlined are already in place in Australia, however the new law underscores the Pope’s commitment to child safety and the prevention of abuse. 

The law is the latest concrete outcome following an unprecedented episcopal conference at the Vatican in February.

Archbishop Coleridge was the Australian representative at that meeting of bishops. 

“The release of this document less than three months after the meeting shows that, for Pope Francis, the updating of universal Church law on the investigation and reporting of abuse against children and other vulnerable people is a real priority,” he said.

“It’s a priority the Australian bishops share. 

“Now all bishops’ conferences and religious congregations around the world will have to meet more rigorous standards.

“That’s a good thing.”

Pope Francis’ new law will take effect from June 1, making it easier for whistleblower priests and women religious to report their superiors for sexual abuse or cover-ups.         

The law gives unprecedented power to the Church’s 415,000 priests and 660,000 religious sisters who, until now, could not go directly to the Vatican with complaints about bishops, cardinals, or superiors. 

“The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful,” Pope Francis said in the law’s introduction. 

“It is good that procedures be universally adopted to prevent and combat these crimes that betray the trust of the faithful.”

During the Australian bishops biannual meeting last week, delegates discussed the Church’s ongoing response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into child abuse, including reforms related to those Pope Francis has introduced regarding accountability for Church leaders.

“While Catholic leaders in Australia have been responding to the sexual abuse for three decades, we’re continually reviewing our policies and procedures to make Catholic settings the safest possible place for children and other vulnerable people,” Archbishop Coleridge said. 

“This new document from the Pope will be a great help in that.”

The new law does not universally require Church officials to report abuse accusations to the police and prosecutors, a decision that was immediately criticised by abuse survivors and their advocates. 

Church officials have argued that a global requirement to report to civil authorities would, in some places, result in victims being ostracised or priests being persecuted. 

However, Archbishop Coleridge said the Church in Australia would continue to implement protocols that go beyond the requirements of the new papal edict.

“Church leaders are obliged to work in harmony with state law; and this implies mandatory reporting to civil authorities where state law requires it,” he said.  

“In fact, in Australia, mandatory reporting to civil authorities has been the Church’s common practice for about twenty years.”

The document also offers a clear mechanism for reporting complaints; and it recognises the problems that arise when complaints are handled too slowly.  

It specifies that complaints must be sent without delay to the Holy See which must reply within 30 days and the investigation must then be completed within 90 days.  

It also specifies that complainants should be kept informed of the progress of the investigation and that they should be treated with respect, dignity and sensitivity throughout.  

“All of this, says Pope Francis, must be seen not merely as a matter of legal technicalities but must be accompanied by a deep sense of the Church and a conversion of heart,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

“A sign of that conversion will be a genuine commitment from all, but especially from Church leaders, to full and enthusiastic implementation of the new law when it comes into effect on June 1.  

“Further measures will come, but in this gift from Pope Francis we have clear indications of the way into a future which really has learnt from the past.”  

The Royal Commission uncovered horrendous clerical abuse – 4444 people brought incidents of child sexual abuse to 93 Catholic Church authorities from January 1980 to February 2015.

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