Universal and local: Church law responds to local law, culture

Universal and local: Church law responds to local law, culture

Universal and local: Church law responds to local law, culture

Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, speaks at a news conference presenting Pope Francis's new document, "Vos estis lux mundi" ("You are the light of the world") at the Vatican May 9, 2019. The document, which goes into effect June 1, contains new universal church law establishing procedures for reporting and investigating abuse within the Church. (Credit: CNS Photo/Robert Duncan.)

The Catholic Church has universal laws valid around the globe, but many of those laws -- including on handling allegations of abuse -- must be further refined on a local level to respond to national laws and cultures.

VATICAN CITY — The Catholic Church has universal laws valid around the globe, but many of those laws — including on handling allegations of abuse — must be further refined on a local level to respond to national laws and cultures.

One of the biggest differences in church and state laws regards the obligation to report to police suspicions or knowledge about the sexual abuse of a minor.

Those differences are found even within the civil laws of individual countries; for example, Australia’s years-long Royal Commission investigation of institutional responses to child sex abuse recommended state laws be amended “to achieve national consistency.”

In Australia, teachers, doctors, nurses and police are mandatory reporters in most states; the Royal Commission recommended that priests, psychologists and school counselors be added to the list.

Pope Francis’s new universal Catholic law, Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”), released in early May, says that every priest or member of a religious order who knows of a case of clerical sexual abuse of a minor or who has good reason to believe that such abuse took place must report that abuse to the bishop of the place where the abuse occurred; if the alleged abuser is a bishop, the report must be made to the metropolitan archbishop or the Vatican nuncio.

Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, told Catholic News Service that the Catholic Church also obliges all its members to act in accordance with local civil law on mandatory reporting.

However, it stops just short of requiring all allegations everywhere be reported to police.

Italian privacy laws, for example, he said, give the alleged victim or the family of a child allegedly abused the right to decide whether to report the case to the police. Someone outside the family who goes to the police could be accused of violating the victim’s privacy.

Announcing new national guidelines in May, the Italian bishops said that if a family objects to reporting the case to police, the bishop must get the objection in writing.

However, Arrieta said, the allegation still must be reported to the local bishop, investigated and reported to the Vatican if the allegation appears credible after the initial review.

The universal law promulgated by the pope in May, he said, also emphasizes “moral obligations,” particularly: “reporting; protecting and caring for the victim; protecting the person who reports — this is very important, for example, if it is a seminarian and someone tries to harm him, that person can be punished under the law — and respecting the law of the state.”

The pope’s new law explicitly states that the Catholic Church “must continue to learn from the bitter lessons of the past, looking with hope toward the future,” Arrieta noted.

“Things have changed. It once was thought that one was doing good by acting a certain way,” trying to limit the public scandal of abuse, he said. “Now it is clear that the real scandal is not punishing, the real scandal is not reacting” when a priest commits abuse.

The new law also clearly states that when doing the preliminary investigation of an abuse allegation, a metropolitan archbishop may seek the assistance of “qualified persons,” whether they are clergy or laity.

“Qualified laypeople must be listened to not because they are laity, but because they are qualified — for example, a mother or father could give good advice about certain things, or someone who has worked for the police can help with the investigation because he knows how to do it,” Arrieta said.

In addition, the bishop said, a metropolitan archbishop may want the input and expertise of outside experts “for the sake of prudence, even if not strictly necessary, because he believes that in his diocese at this time it is important that the faithful see that he is operating transparently and honestly.”


Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.

Latest Stories

Most Read

Crux needs your monthly support

to keep delivering the best in smart, wired and independent Catholic news.

Latest Stories