Laws and measures for the protection of minors
“My body remembers every single touch... My soul has been torn apart”: it was October 19, 2021 when these words began to bounce around the media. They were diffused by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, written by a victim of a priest’s abuse. These words, which were contained in a letter, were a punch in the stomach and shakes the soul, arrived in the hands of Pope Francis. It was the Pontiff who authorized the Commission to disseminate the text; to welcome the voice of all wounded people and show all priests the way that leads to the authentic service of God for the benefit of all the vulnerable.
A few days earlier, at the general audience on October 6, Pope Francis pronounced the word “shame” five times in ten lines of text. He did this while greeting French-speaking pilgrims, in reference to the publication of the Report of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) in France. The survey reveals chilling data: from 1950 to 2020, in France, there were at least 216,000 victims and between 2,900 and 3,200 priests and religious who had been involved in acts of pedophilia.
However, the publication of the letter and the CIASE report are just one step in a courageous journey of awareness and commitment that began long ago and was renewed especially after the summit on the protection of minors in the Church, held at the Vatican in February 2019. This truly global meeting had been convened by Pope Francis, and was attended by representatives of all Episcopal Conferences and male and female religious congregations from around the world. The summit clearly denotes the Church’s willingness to assume its responsibilities and to perform publicly a penitential act, with truth and transparency. What is equally clear are the legacy and the perspectives that emerge from it.
From an accountability perspective, a number of basic documents resulted from that meeting, published at the end of March 2019: a law on the protection of minors in the Vatican City State; a Motu proprio extending its norms to the Roman Curia; and guidelines for the Vicariate of Vatican City. These regulations broaden the initial approach, taking into consideration not only child abuse but also vulnerable persons. Then, in May, the Motu proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi was released, which established new procedures for reporting harassment and violence, and ensures that bishops and religious superiors are held accountable. In particular, the document introduced the obligation for the clergy and religious to report abuse, and the same applies to the laity. In addition, each diocese must have a publicly accessible system for receiving reports. The same law also established the procedure to be followed in cases of “cover-up”.
For greater transparency, in December, with two Rescripts, the Pope abolished pontifical secrecy for cases of sexual abuse and modified the norm regarding the crime of child pornography, making the detention and dissemination of pornographic images involving minors up to the age of 18 years fall under the delicta graviora. Then again, in July 2020, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a Vademecum. This had been requested during the February 2019 summit, and represents an “instruction manual” to guide, step by step, those who must proceed to ascertain the truth when a minor is abused by a cleric. In addition, in May 2021, with the Apostolic Constitution Pascite Gregem Dei, Pope Francis reformed Book VI of the Code of Canon Law. Among the most significant changes is the fact that the crime of child abuse is now framed not within the crimes against the special obligations of clerics, but as a crime committed “against the life, dignity and freedom of the person”. Finally, for those who demand truth, it is enough to remember the publication in November 2020 of the McCarrick Report, regarding the former cardinal responsible for the sexual abuse of minors and then discharged from the clerical state in 2019. The Secretary of State at the mandate of the Pope prepared the Report.
However, the Church’s journey did not stop there. Last September, in Warsaw, an international conference on the protection of minors and vulnerable adults was held for the Churches of Central and Eastern Europe. What emerged from the conference was the desire to create platforms for collaboration and exchange, so as not to leave alone or isolated those who, in the various Countries, are involved in preventing abuse and listening to victims.
“We are faced with an enormous, difficult and painful problem, which concerns the credibility of the Church, wrote Father Federico Lombardi in L’Osservatore Romano, August 26; and who had been the plenary sessions’ moderator at the 2019 summit. However, it is not at all true that nothing has been done or little is being done. It can and must be said with clarity that the universal Church has faced and is facing this problem, has taken necessary steps, and established norms, procedures and rules to deal with it correctly”.
By Isabella Piro