Pope Francis on Saturday updated a 2019 church law aimed at holding senior churchmen accountable for covering up sexual abuse cases, expanding it to cover lay Catholic leaders and reaffirming that vulnerable adults and not just children can be victims of abuse when they are unable to freely consent. With the update, Francis made permanent temporary provisions that were passed in 2019 in a moment of crisis for the Vatican and Catholic hierarchy. The law was praised at the time for laying out precise mechanisms to investigate complicit bishops and religious superiors, the AP reports, even though it amounted to bishops policing fellow bishops without any requirement that civil law enforcement be informed.
But implementation has been uneven, and abuse survivors have criticized the Vatican for a continued lack of transparency about the cases. Their advocates said a wholesale overhaul was necessary, not just Saturday's minor modifications. "The Catholic people were promised that (the law) would be 'revolutionary,' a watershed event for holding bishops accountable. But in four years, we've seen no significant housecleaning, no dramatic change," said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, an online resource that has identified 40 bishops investigated globally under the new protocols.
The new rules conform to other changes in the church's handling of abuse made in the last four years. Most significantly, they are extended to cover leaders of Vatican-approved associations headed by laymen and women, not just clerics. That's a response to the many recently revealed cases of lay leaders abusing their authority to sexually exploit people under their spiritual care or authority. The update also reaffirms that adults such as nuns or seminarians who are dependent on their bishops or superiors can be victims of abuse. Church law had long held that only adults who "habitually" lack the use of reason could be considered victims in the same sense as minors.
The 2019 law expanded that definition, and it is retained in the update, making clear that adults can be rendered vulnerable to abuse. There's been resistance in the Vatican to the #MeToo pressure to recognize rank-and-file parishioners who are abused during spiritual direction by a priest as victims. The definition reads that a victim can be "any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offense." Archbishop Filippo Iannone, prefect of the Vatican's legal office, told the AP, "This can be read as further manifestation of how the church cares for the frailest and weakest."
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