The new law institutes a detailed mechanism for reporting allegations against bishops, and offers protections to whistle-blowers. The pope’s definition of sexual abuse is expansive enough to cover children, seminarians, nuns and women in religious orders, and people with mental disabilities—all of whom have been victimized by Church leaders. (It also condemns the possession or production of child pornography.) Perhaps most important, it demands that alleged victims are offered support services ranging from therapy to spiritual counseling, and promises to protect their confidentiality.
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These accountability measures for bishops matter in part because a few of these leaders played notorious roles in covering up sexual-abuse scandals across the world, especially in moving accused priests to different posts when allegations arose.
Pope Francis has been working toward this moment for several months. In February, he hosted the leaders of bishops’ conferences from around the world at the Vatican for an unprecedented summit on the Church’s failure to address sexual abuse, where he called for “concrete and effective measures.” In March, he issued a law mandating that Vatican officials and diplomats quickly report and address any allegations of sexual abuse or face possible jail time. This motu proprio, called “Vos Estis Lux Mundi”—Latin for “You are the light of the world”—is the culmination of years of advocacy from inside and outside the Church. “The law is important because it gives a clear statement of an obligation,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a longtime Vatican official and member of the small task force that led the February meeting on sexual abuse, in an interview with reporters after the announcement of the motu proprio. “It is a very strong message that disclosure is the order of the day, and not silence.”
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The new law is a major departure from the Vatican’s past action—or, more precisely, inaction—on sexual abuse. For years, Vatican officials dismissed the sexual-abuse crisis as an embarrassing American problem. Benedict XVI, who served as pope for eight years prior to Francis, was the first known pope to meet with abuse victims, and during his tenure, he apologized for the Church’s abuses. But Benedict also carried baggage: Before becoming pope, he had a vexed tenure as the Vatican official in charge of the office that dealt with sexual abuse, contributing to what The New York Times called a culture of “nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction.” Throughout his tenure, Benedict failed to implement comprehensive structural reforms that would have aided in reporting and accountability across the Catholic Church. More recently, he issued a controversial letter that blamed the sexual-abuse crisis on the sexual revolution and 1960s-era reforms in the Church.