WASHINGTON (CNS)  – U.S. church leaders welcomed the norms issued by Pope Francis on May 9 giving clear direction to the global Catholic Church about reporting abuse and holding church leaders accountable, saying it confirms what they already have in place and also gives them a way forward.

The document  which among other things, requires all Catholic priests and women religious to report sexual abuse by clergy and church leaders and provides whistleblower protection for those making allegations  was described as a “blessing that will empower the church everywhere to bring predators to justice,” said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Other bishops echoed his sentiment, issuing statements and speaking out on Twitter about their gratitude for the pope’s action.

New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan described the norms as a sign of the pope’s “desire to institute reform, promote healing and insure justice” and said they were a “much-needed and tremendously important step forward for the church universal.”

The new juridical instrument is meant to help bishops and religious leaders around the world clearly understand their duties and church law, underlining how they are ultimately responsible for proper governance and protecting those entrusted to their care. For this reason, the new document establishes a clearer set of universal procedures for reporting suspected abuse, carrying out initial investigations and protecting victims and whistleblowers.

The new document, given “motu proprio,” on the pope’s own initiative, was titled “Vos estis lux mundi” (“You are the light of the world”), based on a verse from the Gospel of St. Matthew (5:14).

“The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful,” the pope said in the document, released by the Vatican May 9. The norms go into effect June 1.

The new norms now stipulate:

– Procedures for the investigation of bishops, cardinals, patriarchs, religious superiors and all those who lead – even temporarily – a diocese or particular church, including personal prelatures and personal ordinariates.

– Leaders will be held accountable not only with suspected cases of committing abuse themselves, but also accusations of having interfered with, covered up or failed to address abuse accusations they were aware of.  

– When the accused individual is a bishop, the metropolitan will receive a mandate from the Holy See to investigate or delegate a person in charge of the preliminary investigation. A status report must be sent to the Holy See every 30 days, and the investigation completed with 90 days with some exceptions. Vatican offices are also held to specific timeframes and prompt action.

– By June 2020, every diocese in the world must create an office or “public, stable and easily accessible systems” for reporting suspected abuse against a minor or vulnerable person, failure of compliance of abuse guidelines by bishops or superiors, and cases of interference or cover-ups in either a civil or canonical investigation of suspected abuse.

– All priests and religious that become aware of abuse or its cover-up must alert their bishop or religious superior promptly.

– A minor is anyone under the age of 18 and a vulnerable person is “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 to otherwise resist the offense.”

– The definition of child pornography as any representation of a minor, regardless of the media used, “involved in explicit sexual activities, whether real or simulated, and any representation of sexual organs of minors for primarily sexual purposes.”

– Bishops and religious superiors will be accountable not just for protecting minors against abuse but also for protecting seminarians, novices and members of religious orders from violence and sexual abuse stemming from an abuse of power. The norms apply to reports of “delicts against the sixth commandment” regarding clerics or members of religious orders and “forcing someone, by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts.”

– Those who report abuse cannot be subjected to pressure, retaliation and discrimination or told to keep silent. The seal of confession, however, remains inviolable and is not affected by the new norms.

– Procedures for carrying out the preliminary investigation include the bishop immediately requesting from the Vatican that he or a delegate be assigned to begin the preliminary investigation. If he considers an accusation is unfounded, the papal nuncio is informed. The Vatican will have 30 days to respond to the request and the bishop sends a status report to the Vatican every 30 days.

– When the investigation is complete, the bishop sends the results to the proper Vatican office, which then follows existing canon law.

– The continued obligation to respect civil laws regarding mandatory reporting.

– Those who reported suspected abuse or cover-up will be told of the outcome of the investigation if they request to be informed.

– A fund can be set up by bishops’ conferences, synods and church provinces to cover the costs of investigations.

The document is a follow-up to Pope Francis’ 2016 document, “As a Loving Mother,” on transparency and accountability of bishops and religious superiors.

For U.S. church leaders, the pope’s willingness to hold bishops as well as priests accountable was important in light of their own efforts this past year. They have been dealing with the fallout associated with the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report last summer detailing hundreds of allegations of abuse over a 70-year period and the defrocking of one of their own earlier this year: Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and retired archbishop of Washington, in the wake of credible abuse allegations.

Last fall, U.S. bishops had planned to vote on their response to the clergy sex abuse crisis during their general assembly in Baltimore, but they didn’t do so at the urging of the Vatican, which had asked them to wait until after the February summit on clergy abuse with the pope and presidents of the bishops’ conferences around the world.

Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said the pope’s document, “Vos estis lux mundi” (“You are the light of the world”) was a fulfillment of Pope Francis’ pledge at the Vatican’s February summit on protection of minors to provide “concrete measures” to respond to the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the church.

At the end of the February meeting, the Vatican promised to provide direction for how bishops and religious superiors should handle abuse allegations and how they should prepare the relevant documents for the doctrinal congregation when an accusation is found to be credible.

Now that the global church has the required steps they need to follow in front of them in terms of abuse response, U.S. church leaders are determined to discuss their implementation of the norms at their upcoming June meeting in Baltimore.

Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich said in a May 9 statement that the new rule “validates many of the procedures already in place in the Archdiocese of Chicago and in the United States” but it also “provides a framework for the bishops in this country to adopt measures at our June meeting that will both implement the pope’s executive order and address the issue of holding everyone in the church accountable.”

The U.S. bishops have a boilerplate to begin further work in response to the abuse crisis, but they also know from the pope’s document that they are hardly alone in directly confronting this problem.

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, pointed out on Twitter May 9 that the pope’s new rule reflected his belief “that a worldwide problem demands solutions that apply to the whole church” and “having this new law already available in seven languages is a good start!”

Kurt Martens, a canon law professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, noted the global nature of the pope’s action saying in a May 9 Twitter thread that the “universal law shows that the abuse crisis is not simply an American problem but concerns the whole church.”

Martens also said the law, along with the companion March 26 Vatican law stipulating jail time for any public official of the Vatican who fails to report abuse, “sets an unmistakable new course. Voices of the victims are heard; there is no turning back now.”

Amid the praise for the pope’s document, given “motu proprio,” (on the pope’s own initiative), some have said further steps need to be taken.

Kim Smolik, CEO of Leadership Roundtable, said she welcomed the pope’s action for going “further than any previous church laws in its scope of accountability and its global reach” but she said the document doesn’t “address the breadth of culture change necessary to address the root causes of the crises of abuse and leadership failures.”

The Leadership Roundtable was formed in the wake of the 2002 abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston, by lay, religious and ordained leaders to help the church address the abuse crisis and promote best practices and accountability in all areas.

The survivor’s network, SNAP, said in a May 9 statement that it was skeptical of this new law, but it recognized “some good things within it.”

“A lack of policies or procedures has never been the main problem in the clergy sex abuse scandal,” the group’s statement said. “Rather, it has been a lack of accountability for hierarchs who conceal sex crimes and a deficit of courage and willingness to take immediate, decisive action on those who have enabled those crimes to occur.”