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Pope Francis enacts new legislation requiring Vatican officials to report abuse

Pope Francis greets the faithful as he leaves after the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican on March 27.
Pope Francis greets the faithful as he leaves after the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican on March 27. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

ROME — Pope Francis has signed off on new requirements for both Vatican officials and diplomats serving the Holy See abroad, mandating them to report suspected sexual abuse to Vatican judicial authorities, at the risk of fines and jail time.

The legislation represents the most forceful abuse-related measure to date aimed at the city state’s officials and diplomatic corps.

Francis, in a letter released Friday, said that there was a duty to report abuses “to the competent authorities” and to cooperate with them “in the activities of prevention.” Officials who fail to report suspected abuse face fines of up to 5,000 euros or six months in prison. Under the laws, church officials convicted of abuse would be dismissed.

The reporting provision was the most far-reaching component of new legislation made public Friday aimed primarily at the prevention and handling of sexual abuse cases against minors inside the ancient walls of the Vatican.

Previously, activists said it had been a fitting symbol that the Catholic Church — overwhelmed by global abuse cases — didn’t have up-to-date policies to protect children in its own backyard. Several years ago, the Vatican had asked national Episcopal conferences to draw up abuse-related provisions. But the 110-acre city-state had never done so for itself.

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“The church must always be ever increasingly a safe home for children and vulnerable persons,” Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said in a statement.

The Vatican said last month, at the end of a four-day summit on the protection of minors, that the new abuse-related measures were in the works. Church officials have also said they will soon release a handbook for bishops worldwide with guidance on how to prevent and handle sexual abuse incidents.

Though few minors live inside the Vatican, scores of children pass through every day, visiting the church’s massive museum or touring St. Peter’s Square.

The Catholic Church has been in crisis with a surge in sexual abuse cases on multiple continents — including cases in which cardinals and bishops are accused of either perpetrating abuse or failing to properly respond to accusations against subordinates.

Abuse survivors welcomed aspects of the new Vatican measures, and the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said it was “glad to see” that the legislation included background checks for employees, training requirements, and an acknowledgment that “vulnerable adults” also deserved special protection.

But SNAP said the Vatican needed to go a step further and mandate the reporting of abuse to independent, secular law enforcement officials — not to Vatican judicial authorities.

“Decades of revelations, investigations, and reports in the abuse crisis have shown that the church cannot police itself,” the SNAP statement said.

Last year, the Associated Press reported on Vatican City’s absence of a child protection policy, and it noted a 2012 case in which a teenager at a Vatican youth seminary had accused another boy of molesting his roommate. But the alleged victim was not interviewed, the AP reported, while the student who made the complaint was kicked out of the seminary.

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