By Andrea Tornielli
The motu proprio on the protection of minors and vulnerable persons; the new Vatican City State law which is extended also to the Roman Curia; and the pastoral guidelines - three documents signed by Pope Francis – come just over one month after the February meeting which gathered the presidents of the episcopal conferences from across the world and, in a way, represent its first fruit.
They are very specific laws, norms and indications destined, first of all, for those to whom they are addressed: in fact, they concern only Vatican City State, where a large number of priests and religious work, but where there are very few children. Although they have been conceived and written for a unique reality, in which the highest religious authority is also the sovereign and legislator, these three documents contain exemplary indications that take into account the most advanced international parameters.
In the ‘motu proprio’, the only one of the three texts for which the papal signature was indispensable, Pope Francis highlights a significant principle, expressing a number of wishes, including “that everyone should be aware of their duty to report abuses to competent authorities and to cooperate with them in the activities of prevention and response”.
The fact that the Pope also decided to personally sign Law CCXCVII and the Guidelines - texts that in themselves could have been promulgated respectively by the Commission for Vatican City State and by its Vicar - indicates the value inherent in these norms.
The first of the three documents is the new law in which the first article contains a precise and broad definition of “vulnerable adults” who are equated to minors: “Any person in a state of infirmity, of physical or mental deficiency, or of deprivation of personal liberty which in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to intend or to will or in any case to resist the offense is vulnerable".
Many significant innovations in the text
The first concerns the fact that from now on, all crimes related to child abuse, not only those of a sexual nature, but also, for example, mistreatment, will be persecuted “ex officio”, that is, even when the purported victim does not file an official report. The second novelty concerns the introduction of a 20-year prescription period (statute of limitations) that, “in the case of offense to a minor” begins on his or her eighteenth birthday. It is worth remembering that, in this case, we are not talking about canonical laws, but about Vatican City State criminal laws, where the “Codice Rocco”, which was promulgated in Italy during the fascist era, has never been adopted, and where the “Zanardelli Penal Code” still applies, and according to which, prescription periods for these crimes were never more than four years after the crime itself was committed.
Another significant innovation concerns the obligation to report; as well as sanctions for any public official who fails to report abuses he is aware of to Vatican judicial authorities, except in case of the sacramental seal, that is the inviolable secret of Confession. This means that all those who, in the State and by extension in the Roman Curia, but also among the diplomatic staff at the service of the nunciatures, play the role of public officials (that means over 90% of those who work in the Vatican or for the Holy See) would be sanctioned in the event of failure to report.
Another significant innovation is the establishment by the Governorate, within the Vatican Department of Health and Welfare, of a service of accompaniment for victims of abuse, which will be coordinated by a qualified expert. The victims will therefore have someone to turn to for help, to receive medical and psychological assistance, to be made aware of their rights and of how to enforce them. There are also novelties regarding the selection and recruitment of Governorate Roman Curia staff: the candidate's suitability to interact with minors must be ascertained.
Finally, the Pastoral Guidelines for the Vicariate of Vatican City. They may appear as a brief document when compared to similar texts of some Episcopal Conferences, but it should be remembered that there are only two parishes in the Vatican and that there are only a few dozen minors living there. The Guidelines are addressed to the priests, deacons and educators of the Saint Pius X Pre-Seminary, to the canons, parish priests and coadjutors of the two parishes, to the religious men and women who reside in the Vatican as well as to “all those who work in any capacity, as an individual or with an association, within the ecclesial community of the Vicariate of Vatican City”. It is specified, for example, that these persons must “always be visible to others when they are in the presence of minors”, that it is strictly forbidden “to establish a preferential relationship with a single minor, to address a minor in an offensive way or to engage in inappropriate or sexually allusive conduct, to ask a minor to keep a secret, to photograph or to film a minor without the written consent of his parents”. And much more.
From now on the Vicar of Vatican City has the obligation to report to the Promoter of Justice any news of abuse that “is not manifestly unfounded”, and to remove the alleged perpetrator of the abuse from pastoral activities as a precautionary measure. Anyone found guilty of abuse will be “removed from office” in the Vatican. If the person is a priest, all the canonical norms already in force, will be put into practice.
As announced at the end of the February summit, the documents will be followed by the publication, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of an anti-abuse ‘vademecum’ for the universal Church, and by the creation of mechanisms to help dioceses lacking qualified personnel to deal with these cases.
Pope Francis' move is therefore clear and unequivocal: “The protection of minors and vulnerable persons is an integral part of the Gospel message that the Church and all her members are called to spread throughout the world”.