With sweeping new reforms, Vatican adopts most concrete steps to date to address sex abuse, investigating bishops

Vowing that clergy sex abuse should "never happen again," the Vatican on Thursday issued a sweeping set of new reforms aimed a revolutionizing how the Roman Catholic Church polices priests and holds members of its hierarchy accountable for failures to protect the faithful.

The new church laws, signed by Pope Francis, require dioceses worldwide to create systems for receiving anonymous abuse complaints and provide whistleblower protections for those who do so from within the hierarchy's ranks.

The guidelines also lay out new procedures for conducting investigations when a bishop, cardinal or religious superior is the subject of an abuse claim – a problem that has particularly vexed the church in the United States.

The regulations mark the most concrete steps Francis has taken yet in response to a crisis that has come to overwhelm his papacy and arrive three months after he convened a worldwide summit of church leaders to develop solutions to the problem.

Many victims and their advocates in the United States panned that meeting when it ended with few specific reforms in place – especially after the series of scandals that roiled the church in 2017, including a scathing grand jury report in Pennsylvania, dozens of new investigations by state and federal authorities, and the defrocking of American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose alleged abuse of young boys and seminarians was said to have been an open secret within the hierarchy for years.

Many of the new reforms – outlined in an edict known as a motu propio and entitled "You are the light of the world" – have been in place in the United States since the early 2000s, when the nation's prelates issued their own set of localized regulations as the first wave of the clergy sex abuse crisis rocked the American church.

For instance, the rules issued Thursday require all of the world's 415,000 Catholic priests and 660,000 religious sisters to report suspected abuse – a policy similar to one U.S. dioceses adopted nearly two decades ago.

But unlike the U.S. version, the Vatican stopped short of requiring clerics to report those claims to police or other civil authorities, acknowledging that doing so could put priests in danger in parts of the world where Catholics are a persecuted minority.

Still, American prelates appeared to have influenced the new policies in other significant ways, most notably in a new process established for investigating claims of abuse or cover-up involving a bishop.

Critics in the U.S. have long complained that bishops, who are accountable only to the pope, have escaped justice for failing to adequately respond to abuse or, in some cases, committing acts of sexual misconduct themselves.

Facing immense public pressure to act, the nation's prelates had been set to vote on their own set of reforms last fall – including a protocol for civilian-led investigations – before the Vatican stepped in and ordered them to hold off.

The Vatican's guidelines Thursday appeared to split the difference between that idea and an alternative first floated by Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich last fall.

Under it, new authority to investigate is granted to "metropolitan archbishops" – a title given to those prelates tasked with both leading an archdiocese and supervising bishops in nearby dioceses.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, for example, is one of 34 metropolitan archbishops in the U.S. and presides over a province that includes the seven other Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. But up until now, the role has largely been an honorific title in the modern Catholic Church with no significant authority.

Now, complaints against bishops would come to the metropolitan archbishop, who must report them to the Holy See and conclude an investigation within 90 days, though extensions are possible.

The guidelines also establish protocols for situations where the complaint is filed against the metropolitan archbishop himself. But in all cases, ultimate authority remains with the pope.

In a nod to the earlier U.S. proposal, the Vatican also carved out a role for lay Catholics to participate, saying that the metropolitan archbishops could rely on non-clerical experts and advisers throughout their investigation.

The new protocol has already served as a model for at least one church-led investigation in the United States.

Earlier this year, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori led a six-month investigation into sexual misconduct claims against Philadelphia native and former West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield that resulted in his preliminary suspension from ministry.

A final judgment on the case remains pending at the Vatican.

The new laws are set to go into effect June 1 on a provisional basis that will be evaluated over the next three years.