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Critics say pope's law requiring priests, nuns to report sex abuse does not go far enough

Nothing will change, SNAP director David Clohessy said, "until a few dozen bishops are fired for hiding predators."
Image: Pope Francis addresses participants of the meeting with faithful of Rome's diocese in the basilica of St. John Lateran, in Rome
Pope Francis at a meeting with the dioceses of Rome, at the Vatican Basilica of St. John Lateran, in Rome on Thursday. Remo Casilli / Reuters

Victim advocates said Thursday that the fatal flaw in Pope Francis’ new mandate that priests and nuns report clerical sex abuse is that it requires the church to police itself, instead of notifying law enforcement.

They say it’s not enough that Francis has required whistle-blowers to report any abuse or cover-ups to their superiors.

“We're already seeing this 'new' church plan described as 'groundbreaking' and 'sweeping,' but that's irresponsible,” said David Clohessy, the former director of Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “These are promises, plain and simple. They might lead to change. They might not. But children need concrete action, not more pledges from a complicit church hierarchy.”

Popes, said Clohessy, “have always had the power to defrock, demote and discipline bad bishops.”

“They just refuse to do so,” he said. “And that's why clergy sex crimes keep happening. What's needed is courage, not policies. Until heads roll, until a few dozen bishops are fired for hiding predators, little will change.”

“We're disappointed that the pope still refuses to simply tell church employees they must call the police. Any policy or pledge that still largely enables the Catholic hierarchy to handle crimes internally is doomed to continue both abuse and cover-up.”

Clohessy said the silver lining in Francis’ latest effort to tackle the sex abuse scandal, which some say has wrecked the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy — and resulted in the church’s paying millions of dollars to settle lawsuits — is that priests and nuns are required to report even decades-old abuse allegations.

“It's a step forward that church officials reportedly won't use some arbitrary, self-serving deadline or statute of limitations, but it's crucial to remember that these are just promises and habits die hard, so we'll wait to see if this really happens,” he said.

Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who became famous after his attempts to go after predator priests was dramatized in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight,” echoed Clohessy’s concerns.

“The new Vatican laws concerning the reporting of sexual abuse continue the secrecy which has enabled clergy sexual abuse to exist, allows the Catholic Church to continue to ineffectively self-police and basically discourages victims from just calling the police,” he wrote in an email. “History has taught us that the Vatican, with its self-proclaimed laws and procedures, is incapable of protecting innocent children from being sexually abused.”

Garabedian weighed in two days after he held a press conference demanding that the names of eight men be added to the Archdiocese of Boston’s lengthy list of priests accused of abuse on the archdiocese’ website, including one who allegedly molested a teenager 20 years ago by telling her he needed to perform an exorcism on her, according to Garabedian. The Archdiocese of Boston declined to comment on the specific allegations but said that the priest in that incident had been removed from the priesthood.

Francis’ new law, which goes into effect on June 1 and will be re-evaluated after three years, provides protections for anyone making an abuse report and requires dioceses to put into place a system that ensures confidentiality.

Essentially, it makes the church’s 415,000 priests and 660,000 nuns mandated reporters. And it spells out procedures for conducting preliminary probes when the accused cleric is a bishop or cardinal or any other religious superior.

But Francis stopped short of requiring that police be informed because the Vatican has long argued that doing so could endanger the Church in countries were Catholics are a minority and facing persecution.

“It would be a good thing” for people to go to the police, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta said at the Vatican news conference.

That’s not how Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, interpreted Francis’ law.

“It requires reporting to and compliance with civil authorities,” Dolan’s statement reads.

When NBC News reached out to Dolan’s spokesman, Joseph Zwilling, for clarification, Zwilling cited Article 19 of Francis’ law, which states: “These norms apply without prejudice to the rights and obligations established in each place by state laws, particularly those concerning any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities.”

“What this means is if the state requires it,” Peter Isely, the Midwest director of SNAP, explained. “I don’t think it’s law yet in New York.”

Two months ago, New York State Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, a Democrat, introduced a bill that would require all clergy, no matter what religion, to be required by law to report child abuse.

Currently licensed medical professionals, law enforcement and educators are required to report child abuse.

A Buffalo bishop immediately pushed back, saying such a law would put priests in a bind if they heard of an abuse allegation while hearing a confession. Priests are barred by the Catholic religion from spilling any secrets heard in the confessional.

Isley said the Vatican has long used persecution as an excuse to shield priests from police.

“If that is the case they need to state which countries and why that exemption needs to be made there,” he wrote in an email. “This would not apply to most countries around the world. You should establish the rule for reporting and then deal with the exceptions and state why.”

Also, added Isely, “nothing in the document establishes or enacts zero tolerance.”

“Bishops around the world have abusers in ministry or put them back even when found guilty and they are able to do so with impunity because there is nothing in church law that ultimately forbids them from doing so,” he wrote.

Another top U.S. bishop stressed that much of what Francis has mandated is already being done in the dioceses.

“While this new law validates many of the procedures already in place in the Archdiocese of Chicago and in the United States, it provides a framework for the bishops in this country to adopt measures at our June meeting that will both implement the pope’s executive order and address the issue of holding everyone in the Church accountable,” Blase Joseph Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, said in a statement.