ROME – A key Vatican department charged with prosecuting sexual abuse against minors since 2001 said this week that while it’s also responsible for cases of abuse against adults with mental deficiencies, offenses against adults considered “vulnerable” for different reasons falls outside its jurisdiction and must be handled by other departments.

In a Jan. 30 “Clarification on Vulnerable Adults,” the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) noted that a series of 2010 amendments to Pope John Paul II’s 2001 motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela on series crimes reserved to the DDF gave the department competence over the abuse of persons with mental deficiencies.

A “dicastery,” in the argot of the Vatican, refers to a department or office. Likewise, in Vatican-speak “competence” means responsibility or jurisdiction.

According to Tuesday’s statement, with the 2010 revisions the DDF “acquired the competence to deal with crimes against the sixth commandment of the decalogue committed by clerics with people who habitually have an imperfect use of reason.”

The concept of “vulnerable adults,” the DDF said, was first introduced into church law when Pope Francis in June 2019 issued his decree Vos Estis Lux Mundi, which among other things enforced mandatory reporting of abuse for all bishops.

In that decree, a vulnerable adult included “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offence.”

The DDF said that definition of “vulnerable adult” is broader than its own responsibility, which “remains limited, in addition to minors under eighteen years of age, to those who habitually have an imperfect use of reason.”

Cases involving vulnerable adults who do not suffer from mental deficiencies must therefore be handled by other Vatican departments, the DDF said.

According to article seven of Vos Estis, those competent Vatican offices include: Dicastery for the Oriental Churches; Dicastery for Bishops; Dicastery for the Evangelization of Peoples; Dicastery for the Clergy; and the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

This article requires the competent dicastery to inform the Secretariat of State and the other dicasteries involved of both the details of the case and the outcome. It requires that official communication between the metropolitan bishop of the area where the abuse occurred and the Vatican about such cases be conducted through the papal ambassador in the country.

This week’s clarification comes as the DDF is investigating the case of Slovene Father Marko Ivan Rupnik, a famed Catholic artist and former Jesuit who is accused of sexually manipulating and assaulting over 20 adult women, including nuns belonging to a community he helped found in the 1990s.

Rupnik, one of the church’s most notorious contemporary cases, is among other things accused of inserting spirituality into his alleged abuse – an act the DDF defines as “false mysticism” – to manipulate the women he apparently assaulted into committing sexual acts.

In this case, the crime of false mysticism remains with the DDF. However, since the women involved are considered “vulnerable adults” according to the broader definition provided in Vos Estis, other Vatican departments are also likely involved, including the Dicastery for Clergy and the Dicastery for Religious, even though Rupnik was expelled from the Jesuits last year.

After initially refusing to lift a statute of limitations to allow an inquiry into the Rupnik case, the pope reversed course and authorized an investigation last fall. A verdict is expected sometime this year.

The concept of vulnerable adult was a primary factor in the 2018 allegations against former cardinal and priest Theodore McCarrick, 93, who was defrocked in 2019 after being accused not only of sexually abusing minors, but also of regularly sexually harassing adult seminarians.

Allegations against McCarrick coincided with massive sex abuse scandals in Chile, including several cases involving young priests and seminarians abused by superiors, that culminated with every bishop offering a letter of resignation.

These cases, among others, were largely credited with the inclusion of vulnerable adults in canon law with Vos Estis, and under a broader definition expanding beyond mental incapacity.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, formally incorporated into the DDF in 2022 as part of Pope Francis’s reform of the Roman Curia, also advises on cases involving vulnerable adults as defined in Vos Estis, including recommending safeguarding measures for their protection.

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