Each diocese – or district of church governance – must set up clear and accessible reporting systems by June 2020, the pope declared, in a bid to tackle the sexual abuses that have called the church’s moral authority into question and seriously damaged its reputation.
“We have said for years that priests should follow certain strict rules, so why should bishops and other members of the Church hierarchy be exempt?” said Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops.
Hundreds of abuse scandals have rocked the church globally, with a pattern emerging over the past decade of bishops failing to refer clergy accused of sexual abuses to state police authorities and instead, moving them to a different area to continue their pastoral work.
As a result of the decree, bishops will be directly accountable for sexual abuse and any cover-ups. The edict also obliges priests and nuns to report all suspicion of abuse by clerics at any level.
But crimes admitted during the sacrament of confession will remain exempt from the new church law.
Survivors’ groups have called for the Vatican to make reporting of suspected abuse to police mandatory – but the Vatican says church law cannot override local civil law.
The papal edict, named “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” (You Are the Light of the World), says the “norms apply without prejudice to the rights and obligations established in each place by state laws, particularly those concerning any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities”.
Several countries in Latin America do not automatically or legally require priests to report abuse within the church to local police.
Before Thursday’s decree, reporting abuse was a matter of individual conscience for the world’s priests and nuns.
The change in church law also covers possession of child pornography and raises from 16 to 18 the age of adulthood in cases of sexual abuse.
Papal historian Michael Walsh said the decree was a step in the right direction for the church.
“One criticism you might make of this document is that it doesn’t say what the penalties are for clergy who commit abuse or cover it up. But they can remove them from their office, as they have done recently,” he told Al Jazeera.
“There are issues still remaining, outside the pope’s remit. I imagine there will be opposition and foot-dragging among some in setting up these protocols where they don’t already exist.”