VATICAN CITY - Pledging that clerical sexual abuse should "never happen again," the Vatican on Thursday unveiled a set of new rules designed to alter how the church deals with abuse accusations - particularly those made against bishops and other higher-ups.
The guidelines, signed by Pope Francis, call on dioceses to create public and "easily accessible" offices for receiving abuse claims, while offering protection for victims and whistleblowers.
The rules also lay out a way to proceed when prelates are accused of coverup or carrying out abuse themselves, calling for a senior bishop in the region to begin looking into the case with the help of lay experts.
The rules mark perhaps the most concrete attempt to date by Pope Francis to contend with the Catholic Church's primary crisis. The question of how to handle claims against bishops has long confounded the church, because bishops are answerable only to the pope, and for decades they have been able to escape rigid oversight.
But some experts have said the new church rules will be far from a cure-all, as they still keep the handling of cases mostly in-house.
If a complaint is made against a bishop, a so-called "metropolitan" bishop - the bishop who heads the largest regional diocese - can choose "lay faithful" to assist the preliminary investigation. That investigation is then handed off to the Holy See. If a "metropolitan" bishop himself is accused, another bishop in the region is chosen, based on seniority, to lead the investigation.
In an article in the Vatican's newspaper, Andrea Tornielli, a senior Vatican media official, called the guidelines, "a further and incisive step in the prevention and fight against abuse, putting the emphasis on concrete actions."
The steps for handling complaints of abuse and coverup against bishops borrow heavily from a proposal made by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago during a February summit at the Vatican addressing the topic of sexual abuse. Cupich is a close Francis ally.
In presenting his ideas, Cupich said that "this past year has taught us that the systematic failures in holding clerics of all rank responsible are due in large measure to flaws in the way we interact and communicate with each other in the college of bishops."
The laws also require all priests and nuns to swiftly report allegations of abuse or coverup to religious authorities. Previously, there was nothing on paper mandating them to report, though some were compelled by their conscience.
Though the clerics aren't explicitly required to report abuse allegations to police - a contentious issue within the church - the laws do state that church officials should comply with "any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities."
The guidelines cover cases of sexual abuse not only against minors, but also against vulnerable adults and seminarians who are abused by somebody in power. Over the last year, the church has faced an onslaught of cases in which higher-ups have been implicated - a notable shift from earlier decades, when the focus was primarily on individual priests.
In the United States, former cardinal Theodore McCarrick was defrocked earlier this year after a church trial found him guilty of abuse. In Australia, Cardinal George Pell is appealing his criminal conviction for the sexual assault of two boys. In France, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin was recently convicted of failing to report abuse accusations, the first time a church higher-up has faced criminal punishment in such a case.
The guidelines released Thursday come in the wake of a divisive church reckoning with how to police itself and how to diagnose the root problems. Francis's new laws do not address the punishment of clerics found guilty in church trials.
In February, the Vatican held a major four-day summit on sexual abuse that involved more than 100 leading bishops from across the world. Francis had called on the event to yield concrete steps, and officials said Thursday that the new laws were a result in part of that meeting.
This article was written by Chico Harlan, a reporter for The Washington Post.