Pope Francis recently issued “sweeping new sex abuse legislation” intended to hold Vatican personnel and diplomats accountable for allegations of sexual abuse by mandating the immediate reporting of said allegations to Vatican prosecutors.
The changes were issued in the form of a 12-part Apostolic Letter, marking the first time the Vatican has made reporting requirements a law under the penalty of police intervention, fines and possible jail time if members of the Church are found to have committed sexual abuse against “vulnerable people,” who are now formally protected by the Vatican.
The plight of survivors who have been unfairly taken advantage of by priests and clergymen can be traced back decades. The new law has been celebrated as a step in the right direction for the Church, which has recently seen a resurgence of scandal after Pope Francis recently admitted to knowing about the sexual abuse of nuns worldwide.
Details of the New Law
The new law, which goes into effect on June 1, now requires any Vatican public official who learns of an allegation of abuse against a vulnerable person to report it to Vatican prosecutors without delay. Failure to do so can result in a fine of up to 5,000 euros ($7,538 CAD) or up to six months in prison.
The new Vatican definition classifies a vulnerable person as anyone who is suffering from a physical or psychiatric deficiency, isn’t able to exercise personal freedom even on occasion and has a limited capacity to understand or resist the crimes committed against them.
The law further stipulates that survivors be welcomed, listened to and provided with medical, psychological and legal assistance, and sets the statute of limitations at 20 years after the survivor’s 18th birthday. In addition, survivors and their families are to be protected from any retaliation, and will further require background checks for staffs and volunteers working with minors specifically.
The law, however, will only apply to future instances of abuse within the Church, and speaks very little about how this will affect survivors who have been abused in the past. Will they be able to make an appeal to hold their abusers accountable, even if the statute of limitations has already passed? Only time will tell.
Pope Benedict Undermines Progress
Unfortunately, recent public statements by former Pope Benedict have undermined whatever progress the Church has hoped to make in regaining the confidence of abuse survivors.
Benedict says in a recent essay released to the public that he is trying to “contribute to a new beginning” for the Church.
Then Benedict goes on to blame the clergy sex abuse crisis on the sexual revolution of the 1960’s which he says determined that pedophilia was “allowed and appropriate” and “homosexual cliques” in various seminaries for the rise of pedophilia in the Church.
His words are, to put it bluntly, offensive, homophobic and completely groundless.
Benedict was an integral part of the Church’s failed response to Clergy sexual abuse for decades and this most recent statement confirms how victim blaming and finger pointing continues within the Church.
Current Class Action against Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth
It can be incredibly difficult for many abuse survivors to talk about what happened to them. Whether from the trauma of the incident, fear of retaliation or a sense of shame that the abuse ever occurred in the first place, the pain and anxiety following sexual abuse can create a silence that lasts a lifetime and traps survivors within their most painful memories.
The sad fact is that the vast majority of abuse survivors that I talk to blame themselves for what happened, even if they were children at the time! While we know intellectually that survivors shouldn’t bear this guilt, it can be difficult to change a lifetime of self-blame.
Remaining silent protects abusers and allows survivors to continue suffering. In the case of the Catholic Church, which has notoriously covered the tracks of abusers within its ranks, those who have been taken advantage of by clergy may feel more isolated than ever before as reports of cover ups continue to pour out of the Church.
In Nova Scotia alone, our past class-action settlement with the Diocese of Antigonish involved 142 people who alleged sexual abused by priests over the course of 60 years.
More recently, McKiggan Hebert filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Douglas Champagne against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth in 2018. Our hope is that by championing the stories of those like Mr. Champagne, we can do our part in helping end abuse within the Church once and for all.
Need More Information?
We’ve written Breaking the Silence: The Survivor’s Guide to Abuse Compensation Claims so abuse survivors can learn about their legal options confidentially, within the privacy of their homes. Seeking help for yourself—and helping others—starts with holding an abuser accountable.