Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley on Thursday praised a directive from Pope Francis requiring all Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report clergy sexual abuse and coverups by their superiors to church authorities, in a new effort to hold the Catholic hierarchy accountable for failing to protect their flocks.
“This document directly addresses needed improvements to the Church’s response by requiring all dioceses in every country around the globe, within one year’s time, to establish a public, accessible and reliable system for reporting crimes of clergy sexual abuse and any cover up of abuse,” O’Malley said in a statement.
“It also requires the establishment of new procedural norms for investigating crimes by bishops and supreme moderators of religious institutes, including both allegations of sexual abuse and any cover up by way of actions or omissions intended to conceal information or to interfere with investigations,” he said.
O’Malley noted that the new director included “adults who suffer sexual offenses through violence or intimidation or the abuse of authority. People who suffer abuse from those in positions of authority can include, for example, seminarians and religious.”
He conceded that Catholics have been anxiously awaiting reforms.
“During the past year it has become far more clear that the people of the Church and our wider society rightfully demand substantive action for disclosure, transparency and accountability with regard to any occurrence of sexual abuse, or intimidation, or cover up in the life of the Church and that all Church personnel, regardless of office, be subject to the same policies, procedures and sanctions,” O’Malley said.
The new directive, he said, “is an important and substantive response to that demand. I am grateful to the Holy Father for his recognition of the critical need for these new policies and procedures and his actions to as best possible assure the protection of all the people we serve throughout the world.”
The new law provides whistleblower protections for anyone making a report and requires all dioceses around the world to have a system in place to receive the claims confidentially. And it outlines procedures for conducting preliminary investigations when the accused is a bishop, cardinal, or religious superior.
The decree requires the world’s 415,000 Catholic priests and 660,000 religious sisters to inform church authorities when they learn or have ‘‘well-founded motives to believe’’ that a cleric or sister has engaged in sexual abuse of a minor, sexual misconduct with an adult, possession of child pornography — or that a superior has covered up any of those crimes.
It doesn’t require them to report to police, however.
The Vatican has long argued that different legal systems in different countries make a universal reporting law impossible, and that imposing one could endanger the church in places where Catholics are a persecuted minority. But the procedures do for the first time put into universal church law that clergy must obey civil reporting requirements where they live, and that their obligation to report to the church in no way interferes with that.
Abuse survivor David Clohessy dismissed the new set of procedures, saying they remain secretive and internal to the church.
‘‘Until heads roll, until bishops are fired — plain and simple — they’ll continue to ignore and conceal clergy sex crimes,’’ he said.
If implemented fully, though, the Vatican could well see an avalanche of abuse and cover-up reports in the coming years. The decree can be applied retroactively, meaning priests and nuns are now required to report even old cases of sexual wrongdoing and cover-ups — and enjoy whistleblower protections for doing so.
Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability praised some of the provisions, but said they weren’t enough, primarily because there were no provisions to sanction violations and kept the process entirely internal to the church.
‘‘Bishops watching bishops does not work,’’ she said.
The law defines the crimes that must be reported as: performing sexual acts with a minor or vulnerable person; forcing an adult ‘‘by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts,’’ and the production, possession or distribution of child pornography. Cover-up is defined as ‘‘actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid’’ civil or canonical investigations.
The pope mandated that victims reporting abuse must be welcomed, listened to and supported by the hierarchy, as well as offered spiritual, medical and psychological assistance.
The law says victims can’t be forced to keep quiet, even though the investigation itself is still conducted under pontifical secret. And in a novelty, the law requires that if victims request it, they must be informed of the outcome of the investigation.
Victims and advocates have long complained that bishops and religious superiors have escaped justice for having engaged in sexual misconduct themselves, or failed to protect their flocks from predator priests.
The new procedures call for any claim of sexual misconduct or coverup against a bishop, religious superior or eastern rite patriarch to be reported to the Holy See and the metropolitan bishop, who is a regular diocesan bishop also responsible for a broader geographic area than his dioceses alone.
Unless the metropolitan bishop finds the claim ‘‘manifestly unfounded,’’ he must immediately ask permission from the Vatican to open a preliminary investigation and must hear back from Rome within 30 days — a remarkably fast turnaround for the lethargic Holy See.
Once the investigation is completed, the metropolitan sends the results to the Vatican for a decision on how to proceed.