Vatican's guidelines for reporting sex abuse spark disbelief

A new directive on abuse still does not require priests to report abuse to secular authorities, upsetting those who hoped Pope Francis would do more to heal old wounds. 

Alessandra Tarantino/ AP/ File
Catholic bishops attend the canonization of the parents of Saint Therese of Lisieux during a ceremony celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in this October 18, 2015 file photo.

Survivors of clergy sex abuse and their advocates are dismayed by a document for new Catholic bishops which suggests they do not need to report abuse to legal authorities, released this month after being used at a September training session for new church leaders.

"According to the state of civil laws of each country where reporting is obligatory, it is not necessarily the duty of the bishop to report suspects to authorities, the police or state prosecutors in the moment when they are made aware of crimes or sinful deeds," the guidelines say, according to the Guardian. 

Criticism of the document was first launched by the Crux, a Catholic-news website.

Associate editor John L. Allen, Jr. also questioned why prevention strategies – drafted by Pope Francis's Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in response to a sex abuse crisis that has shaken the Church over the past two decades – were not part of new bishops' training.

Although there are no exact numbers of victims and abusive priests worldwide, the Vatican investigated about 3,000 claims of priestly abuse between 2001 and 2010. According to Crux, American bishops have spent more than $260 million since 2002 to prevent abuse. 

For those who had hoped Francis's popular empathy and "human touch" would bring new healing between Church leaders and laity, the guidelines reopened feelings of betrayal. The Pope had promised to bring a "zero tolerance" attitude to sex abuse claims

"It’s infuriating, and dangerous, that so many believe the myth that bishops are changing how they deal with abuse and that so little attention is paid when evidence to the contrary ... emerges," said a statement from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Maeve Lewis, the executive director of One in Four, an Irish group for sexual abuse survivors, said that she worried particularly about countries where the law does not require clergy to be mandatory reporters of child abuse. In Ireland, it would be against the law for a priest or bishop not to report suspected abuse. 

"Given the history of clerical abuse in this country, we all know the sort of culture that that can create – and the very dangerous position it leaves vulnerable children in," Ms. Lewis told Newstalk. 

In the United States, mandated reporting laws vary by state. The bishops' guidelines would allow victims and their families to decide whether to report abuse to police. Many survivor advocates, such as SNAP, have called for stronger mandatory reporting laws

Despite pressures from advocacy groups and even the United Nations, the Church has been reluctant to make globally applicable canon laws about mandatory reporting, wrote former seminary student and judge Kieran Tripsell in an October column for the National Catholic Reporter.

However, the Vatican has granted permission for all priests in countries with mandatory reporting laws to comply with them. 

The bishops' guidelines, which were written by a controversial monsignor, Tony Anatrella, take a wider view of child abuse, emphasizing that most abusers are not priests, but family and other acquaintances, according to the Guardian. 

Pope Francis reached out to abuse survivors in July 2014, and was praised by some for seeming more sincerely repentant for the Church's abuse cover-up than his predecessors. Since then, however, criticism has emerged that he has not met with enough victims, and has stressed abuse as a societal problem, which some say is meant to distract from the unique crisis in the Church.

"What intrigues me about [Francis] as a man is that he’s a work in progress – he shows a great capacity to change," Jason Berry, who has written about the Church, said in a Frontline interview after the Pope's first visit with survivors. "I think Francis is on a journey, and he’s using language to stake out territory for reform. The real question is how much of a change agent will he prove to be?"

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