Is covering up abuse a criminal offense??

Is covering up abuse a criminal offense??

Files in an archive © Julia Steinbrecht (KNA)

A bishop is not obliged to report the crime of a priest. Nor can he be charged criminally with sloppy record keeping that prevents clarification. Rules from state and canon law.

This Thursday, Cologne criminal lawyer Bjorn Gercke will present his expert opinion on abuse for the Archdiocese of Cologne. The ie is whether and to what extent diocesan officials protected perpetrators and covered up crimes and handled cases in accordance with church or state law. The Catholic News Agency (KNA) answers important questions about this:

Must a bishop or other church official report sexual abuse by a priest under state law?

No, there is no general obligation to report in German criminal law. Only those who have advance knowledge of a planned crime such as murder, robbery, hostage-taking or arson must report it to the authorities or those threatened, according to Section 138 of the German Criminal Code (StGB) – that is, at a time when the crime can still be averted.

Are church officials guilty of covering up abuses??

Anyone who, by deliberate action, prevents another from being punished for an unlawful act is guilty of obstruction of justice under section 258 of the Criminal Code. An example of this is the deliberate disappearance of files or making them look good. However, this does not include sloppy record keeping because intent is lacking in this case.

Is obstruction of justice by omission – for example by not reporting it – punishable??

According to Section 13 of the German Criminal Code, criminal liability by omission and failure to act exists only if there is a guarantor obligation – i.e. someone is responsible for ensuring that a criminal act does not succeed. This is how parents must protect their children. With regard to cases of abuse, but also all other crimes, bishops are not guarantors for state prosecution. They do not have to report findings about abusers to the public prosecutor's office.

Can a bishop be guilty of so-called obstruction of justice in office??

No. "Obstruction of justice in office" under section 258a of the Criminal Code refers only to employees of law enforcement agencies such as criminal police officers, prosecutors or judges.

Are there rules in the church to prevent cover-ups?

Since 2002, guidelines of the German Bishops' Conference have been in force, according to which dioceses must inform the public prosecutor's office "in proven cases of sexual abuse of minors". In 2010, this rule was made stricter: Since then, dioceses must involve the authorities as soon as there are "actual indications" of abuse. This does not apply, however, if the person concerned expressly wishes that no investigation be carried out.

Since 2001, dioceses have also been required to inform the Vatican after a preliminary canonical investigation if there is a likely substantiated allegation against a priest.

Do church leaders who cover up abuse face consequences under canon law?

Since 2019, the Apostolic Exhortation "Vos estis lux mundi" has been in effect, addressing for the first time in canon law the problem of covering up abuse cases. The text speaks of "acts and subterfuges" aimed at evading secular or ecclesiastical investigations. According to the report, cover-up is a breach of duty that can be punished by disciplinary action – but not a criminal offense.

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Christina Cherry
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