In response to the latest wave of abuse scandals rocking the Catholic Church, Pope Francis issued sexual abuse laws for Vatican officials on Tuesday, requiring employees of the city-state to immediately report all allegations of sex abuse to Vatican prosecutors. Officials who don't comply are liable to be fined or jailed, according to the Associated Press.
“Protection of minors and vulnerable people is an essential part of the evangelical message that the church and all of its members are called to spread across the world,” Francis wrote in an edict enacting the law, according to the New York Times. He added that he waned to “strengthen the institutional and regulatory framework to prevent and tackle abuses against minors and vulnerable people.”
The laws are limited in scope; they only apply to Vatican City officials, including diplomats serving abroad, and members of the Roman Curia, which acts as the Holy See's administrative wing. Any Catholic officials who don't fall into those categories, such as rank-and-file priests around the world, will face no new requirements as a result of the law.
Moreover, the new rules don't cover or address punishments for Catholic officials who are actually accused or convicted of sexual abuse. In his edict, Francis wrote that any officials convicted of "abuse against minors or vulnerable people should be removed from their responsibilities and, at the same time, given an adequate support for psychological and spiritual rehabilitation, also with the goal of social reintegration."
Allegations of widespread sexual abuse by Catholic officials, and subsequent cover-ups by higher-ups in the church, stretch back decades. In 1992, singer Sinead O'Connor tore up a picture of the Pope on live TV to protest the church's approach to sex abuse within its ranks; the 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil detailed the case of serial child molester and former Catholic priest Oliver O'Grady, while the 2015 film Spotlight won several Academy Awards for its depiction of reporters uncovering child sex abuse among Boston priests.
However, the topic has received renewed attention in the last year due to a torrent of recent scandals.
In August 2018, a grand jury concluded that more than 300 priests sexually assaulted over 1,000 children in Pennsylvania over the last 70 years; only two of those alleged instances of abuse resulted in criminal action. The next month, a leaked study carried out by the church itself concluded that more than 3,600 children were sexually assaulted by Catholic priests in Germany between 1946 and 2014; only 38 percent were prosecuted, and most who were convicted faced only minor disciplinary action, according to the study. In May, every Catholic bishop in Chile offered to resign over a scandal involving cover-ups of sexual abuse allegations in that country.
On an individual level, Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican's treasurer and third-most powerful Catholic official in the world, was convicted on child molestation charges in December. Two months later, then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was defrocked after being accused of sexually assaulting a teenager and forcing a minor to sleep with him, the BBC reported. Pell pleaded not guilty and McCarrick said he had "no recollection" of the alleged incidents.
Once the Vatican's new laws take effect in June, officials who fail to immediately report allegations of sex abuse face a fine of up to $5,615 — and, if they are a Vatican police officer, up to six months in prison.