Pope Francis updates Catholic Church rules on sexual abuse, reaffirms adults can be victims

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Pope Francis on Saturday updated the Catholic Church’s rules on sexual abuse, reaffirming that adults can also be victims.

The decree, “Vos estis lux mundi (You are the light of the world),” is Francis’ landmark legislation designed to help the church prevent and counter sexual abuse. It was released on a temporary basis in May 2019.

After nearly four years of consultation with bishops and Vatican officials, Francis promulgated an updated version of the decree, reaffirming the church’s “desire to continue to combat crimes of sexual abuse,” according to Vatican News.

The updated legislation, aimed at holding church officials responsible for covering up instances of sexual abuse, was published Saturday and is set to take effect April 30.

One notable change is the inclusion of “vulnerable” adults in the text.

In recent years, several sexual abuse cases came to light involving leaders who abused their authority to exploit people under their spiritual care.

According to the definition of the term, a victim can now 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.”

“This can be read as further manifestation of how the church cares for the frailest and weakest,” said Archbishop Filippo Iannone, prefect of the Vatican’s legal office. “Anyone can be a victim, so there has to be justice. And if the victims are like these [vulnerable adults], then you must intervene to defend their dignity and liberty.”

The rule places all alleged sexual abuse victims in the same category, independent of the their ages. That includes religious women, such as nuns, or adult seminarians, who are dependent on their superiors.

The law also reaffirms an obligation by church leaders to report any cases of “vulnerable” adult victims of abuse, and it offers protections for witnesses of abuse, noting that no “obligation of silence” could be imposed on victims or witnesses of alleged crimes.

The updated version also requires dioceses to have an “organization or office” for sexual abuse cases to be reported.

Francis promulgated the norms in 2019 as a response to an elaborate cover-up of sexual abuse by former U.S. Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

McCarrick was appointed archbishop of Washington, D.C. in 2000, by the late Pope John Paul II. He was defrocked nearly two decades later after a Vatican investigation confirmed he had molested adults as well as children.

In November 2020, an explosive 449-page report found that Saint John Paul II knew about sexual misconduct allegations against McCarrick years before he was removed from the priesthood.

Last month, a Polish television investigation found that John Paul also knew about allegations of child sexual abuse by priests — and tried to cover them up — when he was an archbishop in his native Poland.

With News Wire Services