After recent media reports suggested the Vatican is telling bishops to cover up sexual abuse, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has said that reporting abuse is not just a civil responsibility, but a moral one.
“The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must not be kept secret for any longer. I pledge the zealous vigilance of the Church to protect children and the promise of accountability for all,” Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, president of the commission, said in a Feb. 15 statement, quoting Pope Francis.
On behalf of himself and the other members of the commission, the cardinal affirmed that “our obligations under civil law must certainly be followed.”
Even beyond these civil requirements, “we all have a moral and ethical responsibility to report suspected abuse to the civil authorities who are charged with protecting our society,” he said.
Cardinal O'Malley's statement comes less than a week after some media reports falsely suggested that the Vatican is telling new bishops that they don’t have to report sexual abuse.
The news reports concerned a statement from French Msgr. Tony Anatrella, who contributed to a 2015 formation course for new bishops organized by the Congregation for Bishops.
Msgr. Anatrella, a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, wrote a document with a section reflecting on countries' civil laws that mandate abuse reporting.
The document said “it is not necessarily the duty of the bishop to report suspects to authorities, the police or state prosecutors in the moment when they are made aware of crimes or sinful deeds.” Msgr. Anatrella said that decision is up to victims and their families.
Some media reports depicted the monsignor's statements as an encouragement to cover up sexual abuse or as a claim that it is “not necessarily” a bishop’s duty to report sexual abuse in cases where laws require it.
However, in his statement Cardinal O'Malley stressed the importance of reporting suspected abuse and following the guidelines that are in place.
As an example, he pointed to the Charter for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which “clearly states the obligation that all dioceses/eparchies and personnel report suspected abuse to the public authorities.”
This obligation is reaffirmed every year during the USCCB's November training session for new bishops, as well as every other February when the conference runs a second training program for new bishops that also “clearly and explicitly includes this obligation,” the cardinal said.
He noted that the commission recently shared with Pope Francis an overview of their “extensive education efforts” in local churches over the past two years.
At the same time, he said, the commission reiterated their willingness to provide this same educative material at courses offered in Rome, which include the annual training program for new bishops, as well as one for the offices of the Roman Curia in their own child protection efforts.
In comments made to CNA Feb. 12, Bill Kilgallon, a member of the commission and director of the National Office for Professional Standards of the Catholic Church in New Zealand, said that education and accountability have been big talking points for the commission.
“We’ve already recommended to the Pope the establishment of a system of holding bishops and religious superiors to account who don’t apply the appropriate guidelines, and don’t deal with the matter of sexual abuse appropriately,” he said.
One of the main tasks of the commission, Kilgallon said, is to both establish effective guidelines for handling abuse cases and to make sure that they are being followed.
“In discussions with people from countries across the world, the need for those guidelines and the effect of guidelines is apparent,” he said.
However, he stressed that guidelines “are only the beginning. What we need to do then is make sure people follow those guidelines, and follow them effectively.”
In addition to making sure that local churches implement the guidelines, Church leadership must also be educated, Kilgallon said.
“That's very important. That's been highlighted…we have a group working on that issue,” he said, adding that a separate group is currently looking into changes that need to be made in canon law.
“So there are a number of things happening that I think point to a positive future.”