Attention journalists: New papal decree still avoids laity in process of fighting sexual abuse

A new decree by Pope Francis that now requires priests and nuns to report cases of abuse by other clergy — including any cover-ups by superiors such as a local bishop — is long overdue.

It’s so long overdue that one has to wonder why this wasn’t something put into practice by the church years ago.

Nonetheless, the pope’s attempt to finally create some accountability and transparency is well intentioned, although misguided given that it largely ignores the role of laypeople and relies primarily on clergy self-policing, something sex abuse victims and their families have long decried as part of the problem.

The new church law — known as Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are the Light of the World) — announced this week doesn’t require clergy to report these cases to civil authorities, such as the local police. That’s a big mistake. The primary responsibility of anyone who witnesses a crime is to alert authorities. In the case of predator priests, the Vatican has long argued that involving civil authorities could potentially endanger the lives of church officials in places where Roman Catholics are persecuted.

As a result, this papal decree gives bishops (and men above them like archbishops) lots of power and appears to be a contradiction of those same claims of clericalism the pope and his supporters in the Roman curia largely pointed to last year when confronted with allegations of sex abuse. The practice of policing oneself hasn’t worked well in the past for the church or any large secular or religious organization.

“People must know that bishops are at the service of the people,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s sex crimes prosecutor, told The Associated Press. “They are not above the law, and if they do wrong, they must be reported.”

The decree now requires priests and nuns to report allegations in which there are “well-founded motives to believe” that another cleric or sister has engaged in the following crimes: sexual abuse of a minor, improper sexual relations with an adult, the viewing and distribution of child porn or that a superior (such as a bishop) has covered up any of these aforementioned crimes.

These measures are a result of the behavior of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was laicized earlier this year after he was revealed to being a serial predator.

Would the measures now in place have potentially been able to stop McCarrick from committing crimes for decades? Maybe. It seems unlikely in a top-down culture. McCarrick, for instance, was a leading voice in the church’s 2002 response to the sexual abuse crisis in Boston and an architect of the Dallas Charter.  

Indeed, this new decree is meant to get rid of men like McCarrick. The ex-cardinal was able to rise up the church ranks despite a series of credible allegations of sexual misconduct lodged against him. After the allegations became public, the pope defrocked McCarrick — the Catholic church’s equivalent of the death penalty — after it was determined by the Holy See that the former cardinal of Washington, D.C. had sexually abused minors and adult seminarians.

It should be noted that a review board at the Archdiocese of New York substantiated cases of abuse against McCarrick by a former altar boy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral who reported two incidents of abuse going as far back as 1971 and ‘72. Without that involvement by Catholics outside the hierarchy the McCarrick story may have never broken.

Catholic News Agency reported that the decree now establishes the “metropolitan model” for the investigation of accusations against bishops and their equivalents, as proposed by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago at the November meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference and at the Vatican’s February summit. The metropolitan archbishop would conduct the probe, with help from laypeople if he chooses to involve them. In another example of the limitations of this new law, someone like McCarrick — had he still been in power — would be responsible for overseeing an investigation.

U.S. bishops will convene again in Baltimore for a four-day summit starting June 11. That meeting will certainly address this new measure and other ways American bishops are trying to regain credibility after the McCarrick case.

If local authorities can’t be involved, then the idea of a lay board would be a better route to take.

Continue reading “Pope's New Decree On Sex Abuse Reporting Ignores Role Of Lay Catholics,” by Clemente Lisi, at Religion Unplugged.

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