Pope Francis has issued a new stricter landmark decree making bishops directly accountable for sexual abuse or covering it up, requiring clerics to report any cases to Church superiors and allowing anyone to complain directly to the Vatican if needed.
Tackling sexual abuses that have battered the Catholic Church's reputation has been a major challenge for Pope Francis since his 2013 election, with victims demanding a crackdown on bishops at the diocese level accused of concealing or mismanaging cases. Now complaints will have to be investigated within 90 days.
"It covers both children and adults, sexual abuse of children and adults, and it is very wide ranging. It answers, I would think, quite a few of the things that advocates of victims of sexual abuse have been asking for bishops' accountability," a Reuters journalist said.
The papal change in Church law, covering abuse of children and adults alike, also obliges every diocese worldwide to set up simple, accessible reporting systems within a year and spurs local churches to involve lay experts in investigations.
Although such systems are already in place in some countries including the United States, they are lacking in many others.
Pope Francis's edict obliges the world's one million priests and nuns to report all suspicion of sexual abuse by clerics of any level. Before, it was just a matter of individual conscience as to whether to report cases.
It also calls for whistleblower protection, saying bishops with conflicts of interest in cases of cover-up should recuse themselves from investigations and that bishops can also be held accountable for abuse of power in sexual relations with adults.
The decree also allows victims or their representatives to report alleged abuses by bishops directly to the Vatican or a Vatican ambassador, bypassing diocesan procedures that have been discredited by multiple instances of cover-ups.
But the decree does not alter Vatican policy that clerics should follow local law as to whether they are mandated to report alleged sexual abuse to civil authorities.