Pope Francis recently issued a papal decree that requires all Catholic clergy to report sexual abuse to church authorities. The decree included the need to report attempts to cover up sexual abuse but does not require clergy to report anything to the police.
The news is creating quite a stir in Pennsylvania, as many victims of sexual assault and abuse by priests and clergy had been pushing for a requirement to get law enforcement involved.
Catholic Clergy Now Required to Internally Report Sexual Abuse
The announcement was made on May 9, 2019. Pope Francis' decree included many provisions, but the chief among them was the requirement that priests and nuns report sexual abuse or cover up attempts by their superiors to specific church authorities.
Clergy members who report abuse or sexual misconduct would benefit from protections, much like a whistleblower under American law.
It also forces churches to establish reporting systems that are public, stable, and accessible within a year.
Because the obligation the decree creates is retroactive, clergy members are now being pressured to report sexual abuse that they have known about for years, but never mentioned. The result is likely going to be a huge influx of reports in the next few months.
Nevertheless, victims of abuse say that the decree does not go far enough because it does not require the reporting of an incident to law enforcement. Rather, the decree only requires reporting to another church agency, which raises the concern that it will only lead to more secrecy and cover-up attempts.
Pennsylvania's Laws Concerning Mandatory Reporting of Sex Abuse
When it comes to clergy reporting sexual abuse, Pennsylvania's laws are more stringent than many other states. Most states exempt the clergy from any and all mandatory reporting requirements.
However, Pennsylvania's laws are not as demanding as some media outlets seem to think. One news report by NBC says that “clergy are included in laws governing the report of sexual abuse, and required to report abuse,” but that is not the case: Clergy are not required to report sexual abuse – they are required to report child abuse. While this is a nuanced difference – much of the sexual abuse claims against clergy do involve children – it does make a difference in many cases. Additionally, the mandatory reporting obligation only triggers in certain circumstances, often involving “specific disclosures” by the child.
When clergy are more interested in turning a blind eye towards the problem or are pressured to look the other way, any reason to avoid the reporting requirement is good enough, even if there are criminal repercussions if they are proven to have failed to report abuse.
Criminal Defense Lawyer Joseph D. Lento Serves Philadelphia
Joseph D. Lento is a criminal defense lawyer who represents people accused of sexual assault and child abuse in the Philadelphia area. The situation surrounding the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is an especially complicated one because the church insists on continuing to handle the issues internally.