Pope Francis issued sweeping new sex abuse legislation on Friday for Vatican personnel and diplomats that requires the immediate reporting of abuse allegations to Vatican prosecutors.
For the first time, the law provides an explicit Vatican definition for "vulnerable people," who are entitled to the same protections as minors under church law.
The Vatican amended its canon law covering sex abuse to include "vulnerable adults" in 2010, but never defined it.
It is a policy shift aimed at being a model for the Catholic Church around the world.
While limited in scope, the mandatory reporting provision marks the first time the Vatican has put into law requirements for Catholic officials to report allegations of sex crimes to police or face fines and possible jail time.
Vatican City State
Francis also issued child protection guidelines for Vatican City State and its youth seminary. The move comes after the global sex abuse scandal exploded anew last year, and The Associated Press reported that the headquarters of the Catholic Church had no policy to protect children from predator priests.
While the new legislation only covers Vatican City State, affiliated institutions and the diplomatic corps, they were still symbolically significant and were welcomed by a former seminarian whose case helped spark the reform.
"I see this as something positive," Kamil Jarzembowski told the AP.
Vatican's new definition
According to the new definition from the Vatican, a vulnerable person is anyone who is sick or suffering from a physical or psychiatric deficiency, who isn't able to exercise personal freedom even on occasion and has a limited capacity to understand or resist the crime.
The new law covers all personnel who live and work in the Vatican as well as the Holy See's vast diplomatic corps.
The issue of whether adult seminarians, religious sisters or other adults who are emotionally or financially dependent on clergy can be considered "vulnerable people" has come to the fore in the wake of the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a once high-ranking American cleric accused of molesting seminarians, and revelations of priests and bishops sexually preying on nuns.
Vatican ambassadors have figured in some of the most scandalous cases of sex abuse in recent years, with papal representatives accused of groping, distributing child pornography and sexually abusing minors in their far-flung posts.
The law currently requires any Vatican public official who learns of an allegation of abuse to report it to Vatican prosecutors "without delay." Failure to do so can result in a fine of up to 5,000 euros ($5,615) or, in the case of a Vatican gendarme, up to six months of prison.
The mandatory reporting provision, however, is significant, since the Holy See for decades has justified not having a binding reporting policy for the universal church by arguing that accused clergy could be unfairly persecuted in places where Catholics are a threatened minority. Since that is not a risk in the Vatican, it is now law.
"With this document the Vatican wants to send a message that it takes these crimes seriously, wants to prosecute them, to avoid cover up, and also to create an atmosphere that prevents these crimes from happening in the first place," said Ulrich Rhode, a canon law professor at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University.
The legislation requires that victims be welcomed, listened to and provided with medical, psychological and legal assistance, and sets the statute of limitations at 20 years past the victim's 18th birthday.
In a statement accompanying the new law, the Vatican's editorial director, Andrea Tornielli, said while very few children actually live in the Vatican City State, Francis decided to make the legislation and accompanying guidelines a model.
av/ng (Reuters, AP)