In Christianity, priests are envisaged as alter Christus, another Christ, and thus any sexual violation caused by them is a breach of the sacred trust that a person entails in the religious institutions. Widespread and growing sexual abuse at the hands of priests, nuns and other members of the religious orders and a number of attempts to cover them up has resulted in a worldwide distrust in the credibility of the Catholic institutional hierarchy and a threat to the papacy. A universal law that protects the victims of abuse from being silenced has been the need of the hour.
On the 9th of May, 2019 Pope Francis put forward the first law in an apostolic letter which obligated the Roman Catholics Church officials including all priests and nuns to report any type of clergy sexual abuse that they encounter or hear of, to the superiors in the Church. This move was undertaken by the Pope as a strong retaliation to the widespread sexual abuse at the hands of bishops across the world in order to bring in accountability post the landmark meeting held at the Vatican in the presence of global church leaders in February.
The meeting held in February ended up frustrating a lot of victims of abuse as well as the other faithful while the church leaders who were a part of the meeting were of the belief that it achieved a positive outcome though no specific action was decided upon in its due course. While the meeting did send out a strong message pertaining to the expected conduct on part of church bishops and zero tolerance for sexual abuse, it failed to provide a consolidated solution for the same.
The first law introduced by the Pope is thus being considered as an all-embracing solution to the persistent problem of clergy sexual abuse as it diverges from the canon law wherein the power to judge a bishop’s conduct lies only in the hands of the Pope. The new laws have delegated the power to investigate any sexual misconduct on part of the church clerics to major archbishops across the world thus facilitating the due course of justice.
For the purpose of clear application of these norms, inclusivity has been brought in by including not only women but also minors as well as ‘vulnerable’ people who are not in a situation to defend or protect themselves due to physical, mental or other disabilities.
The decree has put power in the hands of archbishops in various regions of the world to look into sexual accusations against the bishops in their particular region. It empowers churches to imposed stringent measures and brings justice to the victims of abuse. The church dioceses have been given a year’s time to establish facilitating procedures for the report of abuse.
While this law put in force by the Pope does depict a very progressive step taken, it cannot be considered to be a concrete solution to put a full stop on clergy sexual abuse as it does not propose any established penalty for the abusers. Each step taken for addressing this fallout needs to be questioned as to whether it is sufficient to render justice as well as a sense of healing to the victims of abuse?
Another key problematic issue that the new law fails to address is that of reporting abuse to the civil authorities. While the law necessitates the reporting of abuse (though not the police), it does not in any way ensure strict compliance. Here the responsibility to report abuse lies on the conscience of the church leaders who may or may not intend to protect the abused. There is no guarantee whether the aforementioned will be enacted by the bishops worldwide. Furthermore, the law and policies mentioned in the apostolic letter should be of such nature that can be comprehended and understood by the regular people having interests in the issue. The practice of control of narratives of problems and their solutions needs to be reformed in order to make it more inclusive of opinions and less concealing. Listening to the deliberations of those who have suffered is a must for catering to their needs of justice.
Unless there is widespread cooperation from the church leaders all over the world in establishing a basic understanding for the enforcement of safe environments in churches, the trust in this institution will continue eroding as it has been since the past years in light of the increasing sexual abuse incidents. Zero tolerance policies and their fruitful implementation is the only way to rebuild the hope and trust of people that have been damaged to a great extent.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Priyanka Dhage is a second-year student from NALSAR University of Law. She is an ADR enthusiast with a special interest in the field of negotiation and arbitration. She also loves to dance and travel.