SALT LAKE CITY — In new guidance issued Thursday, Pope Francis called on priests and nuns around the world to stand with sexual abuse victims instead of abusers.
"The crimes of sexual abuse offend our Lord," he wrote.
Under the new policy, Catholic leaders will be required to report sexual abuse and attempted cover-up to church authorities. They'll communicate openly with and offer protection to victims and whistleblowers, who, for decades, were silenced and shunned.
"Pope Francis’ (guidance) reflects our global church’s commitment to protect and heal all victims of the sexual abuse scandal. It is clear from this new law that Pope Francis expects swift and comprehensive progress," said Jean Hill, government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
Here's how he aims to bring about that progress and what other Catholic leaders think about the pope's plan:
What did the pope say?
The new document, called a "motu proprio" or executive decree, outlines how to improve the Catholic Church's response to clergy sexual abuse. It instructs individual dioceses to set up a system for receiving anonymous reports, urges better communication between Catholic leaders and highlights the need to protect and care for victims and their loved ones.
Sexual abuse causes "physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful," the pope wrote, noting that abuse includes sexual acts with a minor or vulnerable person, possession of child pornography and violent sexual contact with an adult.
Additionally, the law explains what should happen when bishops and other high-level leaders face abuse accusations. Previously, these officials often slipped through the cracks of the church's response.
"People must know that bishops are at the service of the people," said Archbishop Charles Scicluna, an expert on clergy sexual abuse and prevention at the Vatican, to The Associated Press. "They are not above the law, and if they do wrong, they must be reported."
The decree, titled "You are the light of the world," also takes aim at cover-up efforts, which have long enabled abusive priests to keep their jobs despite facing credible allegations. The pope calls out "omissions intended to interfere with" investigations in the same section he lists examples of abuse.
"The cover-up of abuse is treated with the same degree of seriousness and in the same way as abuse itself," wrote Michael Sean Winters, who covers religion and politics for National Catholic Reporter.
As of June 1, priests and nuns will be mandatory reporters to their superiors within the Catholic hierarchy, but not to civil authorities. However, Catholic leaders should cooperate with civil investigations, the pope wrote.
"Previously such reporting was left up to the conscience of individual priests and nuns. Now it is church law," the AP reported.
The pope's new guidance comes fewer than three months after a high-profile gathering on sexual abuse at the Vatican, which brought together leaders of bishops' conferences around the world.
Participants discussed the extent of the crisis and weighed potential solutions, while also praying and worshipping together.
"It was the first time the pontiff had gathered church leaders … for such a purpose, raising hopes that it might mark a turning point in the institution's slow track record of responding to the issue," NPR reported in February.
The summit enabled several frank discussions about past missteps and the need for better reporting structures in the future, but little concrete action. This week's announcement represents the type of sweeping change many Catholics were waiting for.
This document "is one of the concrete measures Pope Francis mentioned as a result of the February conference," Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who leads the Boston Archdiocese, told National Catholic Reporter.
How did Catholics respond?
Cardinal O'Malley and other U.S. Catholic leaders celebrated the decree, praising the pope's proposed path forward.
"We receive the (document) as a blessing that will empower the church everywhere to bring predators to justice, no matter what rank they hold in the church," said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement.
Similarly, church policy experts, including journalists, said they were impressed by the pope's message.
The pope "has clearly put the entire Curia on notice: Stop being inhumane," Winters wrote for National Catholic Reporter.
However, the document's reception wasn't entirely positive. Some abuse victims and victims' rights advocates question if the decree was bold enough. They wondered why priests and nuns still won't have to call the police or even non-Catholic abuse experts for help when they receive new reports.
The new system for reporting and responding to clergy sexual abuse will rely on "the very same church structures that have been receiving and routing abuse allegations for years," Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, told The Washington Post.
Many Catholic leaders believe it would be too complicated and even dangerous to mandate reports to civil authorities, according to the AP.
"The Vatican has long argued that different legal systems in different countries make a universal reporting law impossible, and that imposing one could endanger the church in places where Catholics are a persecuted minority," the article noted.
Why should non-Catholics care?
The Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis has been front-page news in the U.S. for decades. It's contributed to declining trust in religious institutions and sparked broader conversations about how to protect children and other vulnerable people.
Alleged abusers, including those named by Catholic dioceses across the country in recent months, were more than leaders in their congregations. They were leaders in their communities. They coached sports teams, spoke at public events and served as mentors.
Additionally, the Catholic Church is not the only religious group struggling to respond to sexual abuse. In recent months, abuse scandals have been uncovered in the Southern Baptist Convention and other Christian denominations.
"Some people assume this is a Catholic problem," said the Rev. Jimmy Hinton, a Church of Christ pastor, to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year. "It's not, not at all."
Will it make a difference?
It's too soon to measure the impact of the pope's new decree. After all, it doesn't officially take effect until June 1. Individual dioceses have until June 2020 to implement anonymous reporting systems and adopt related policies.1 comment on this story
But the document is still cause for celebration, Winters wrote. Finally, Vatican officials seem to have accepted the scale of the sexual abuse crisis and accepted that it will take more than prayer to fix it.
"Is this fight over? Of course not. All this has to be implemented (and) foot-dragging must be confronted," he said. "Still, this is no baby step forward."
And it could lead to more policy changes as soon as next month, when U.S. bishops, including Utah's Bishop Oscar Solis, meet in Baltimore for a previously scheduled assembly.
The pope's decree "could provide a starting point for discussions," The Washington Post reported.