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Pope Francis orders Vatican officials to report suspected child abuse

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The Pope issued new legislation for the protection of minors within the Vatican City State

(ROME—29 March 2019) Pope Francis issued new child protection legislation on Friday, a little more than a month after promising the new measures at the conclusion of the recent child protection “summit” at the Vatican.

A statement from the interim Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Alessando Gisotti, says, “A month after the conclusion of the Meeting on the Protection of Minors held in the Vatican, a meeting greatly desired by Pope Francis, three very significant documents are being published that respond to the concrete demands expressed by the People of God to address the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors. Announced this past February 24, this is the first important step following the summit of the Episcopal Conferences.”

Gisotti’s statement goes on to say, “Significantly, all three documents — the laws on the protection of minors in Vatican City State, the Motu proprio which applies the norms to the Roman Curia, and the Guidelines for the Vicariate of Vatican City — are signed by the Holy Father.”

“Together,” Gisotti says, “these acts reinforce the protection of minors by strengthening the normative framework.” Gisotti’s statement concludes by saying, “The Holy Father hopes that — thanks also to these norms which pertain to Vatican City State and to the Roman Curia — everyone might develop in their awareness that the Church must always be ever increasingly a safe home for children and vulnerable persons.”

The law is for Vatican City, and concerns the policing, reporting, judicial and penal conduct of the City State and its officials. It is not a change in Canon Law.

Preceded by a Motu proprio that extends the law’s provisions to the Roman curia and takes the place of an official explanatory note, and followed by a series of pastoral guidelines, the law introduces several significant changes, among them:

  • Crimes against minors and vulnerable persons are now subject to “official” prosecution, i.e. the presumed victim need not lodge any formal complaint against the accused before the Vatican City prosecutor brings charges.
  • “Vulnerable persons” is given legal definition: “Every person is vulnerable, who is in a state of infirmity, of physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty, who in fact, even occasionally, is limited in the capacity to understand and will, or to  resist the offense”.
  • Vatican City and Curial officials are now obliged to report crimes or suspicions of crimes against minors and vulnerable adults to Vatican City authorities. This obligation is without prejudice to the seal of Confession, but applies to all other circumstances.
  • The Vicar for Vatican City is obliged to report to the chief prosecutor any and all word of abuse that is not “manifestly unfounded”.
  • The new law regarding the obligation to report also applies not only to the physical territory of Vatican City and anyone in it, but to all officials and functionaries of Vatican City and the Holy See, wherever they are — e.g. diplomatic personnel and other employees in extraterritorial spaces.
  • The statute of limitations on the prosecution of such crimes is now twenty years from the victim’s 18th birthday.
  • There will be screening of candidates for employment in Vatican City and the Roman Curia.
  • Vatican City will create a support system for victims, outside the judicial and penal structures, to care for their medical, spiritual, and psychological well-being, as well as to advise victims of their rights and assist in their vindication.

In addition, the Guidelines for Vatican City provide norms for general conduct with minors, including the following: anyone working with minors should always be visible to others; must report any dangerous behavior; never have direct communications with minors via phone, email, or social media without parents’ express consent.

According to a summary published by Vatican News, the regulations urge general caution. They also forbid asking a child to keep a secret, filming or photographing a child without parents’ express written consent, and using corporal discipline.

The new measures provide that anyone found guilty of abuse will be removed from his post, but they do not specify precisely what will happen before a guilty verdict is pronounced. They do say the accused is to be removed from any pastoral activities within the Vatican City Vicariate.

There are provisions for the protection of victims and their families from retaliation, but nothing specific regarding protection for those with duty to report, or for “whistleblowers” who denounce failures in the system.

A note from the Editorial Director of the Dicastery for Communication, Andrea Tornielli, said the measures, “contain exemplary indications that take into account the most advanced international parameters.”

Tornielli also noted that Pope Francis signed all three documents personally, even though the Motu proprio was the only one of the three documents that strictly required Pope Francis’s signature. “The step taken by Pope Francis,” Tornielli said, “is therefore clear and unequivocal: ‘The protection of minors and vulnerable persons is an integral part of the Gospel message that the Church and all its members are called to spread throughout the world’.”