VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has reaffirmed the requirement that every diocese, Catholic religious order and institution in the world have clear safeguarding guidelines and procedures and that they are publicly accessible.

The commission’s “Universal Guidelines Framework” also insists that “all reports of sexual abuse should be reported to the civil authorities” and that the local church maintain evidence that they have cooperated with civil authorities in investigating and responding to the allegations.

Pope Francis poses for a photo with members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, in Rome for their plenary assembly, during a meeting at the Vatican March 7, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The pontifical commission began drafting the framework in 2022, invited comments on various drafts, including by members of the public through its website, and approved the framework for distribution during its plenary meeting March 5-8.

“Given the vastly different cultural contexts in which safeguarding policies and procedures are required to operate, the Commission will engage in a targeted series of pilot programs to evaluate their effectiveness especially in those parts of the Church that have little experience of implementing and evaluating the effectiveness of safeguarding guidelines,” the commission said in a statement published with the framework April 5.

While being sensitive to local cultural differences, the commission said, “the zero-tolerance approach to abuse” must be maintained.

Many of the guidelines in the framework — like child protection screening and training for all church workers — are standard in many countries that have dealt publicly with the clerical sexual abuse crisis, but they still are not universally followed.

Bishops and religious superiors, it said, should have “professional support in screening candidates for seminary/formation programs and before ordination/profession of vows.”

That responsibility, the commission said, includes asking if “the applicant or candidate has previously withdrawn or been exited from another seminary or formation program.”

Dioceses, seminaries and religious orders must have “a system in place to assess the safeguarding credentials — good standing — and manage the movement of all seminarians, clergy, religious and lay ministers between different seminaries, formation programs, other Church entities — especially across international borders,” it said.

The framework also calls on dioceses and religious orders to assign mentors to all newly ordained clergy and newly professed religious for a period of at least five years and mentors for clergy and religious arriving from other countries for at least two years, particularly to help familiarize them with aspects of the local culture involving respect for another person and what are commonly called “boundary issues.”

“Both physical and online risks” must be “assessed and managed within the provision of ministry,” the framework said, especially considering risks arising from: “one-to-one interactions between an adult and a child; ministries such as counseling, home visits, outreach, one-to-one tuition, the sacrament of reconciliation, spiritual direction and mentoring; potential physical contact between the penitent and the confessor where the sacrament of reconciliation is celebrated; (and) one-to-one interactions with vulnerable adults.”

When hiring personnel, the framework said, each position should be assessed “for the expected level of contact with children and/or vulnerable adults and appropriate safeguarding recruitment procedures are implemented,” including background checks.

As the Catholic Church continues to discuss the definition of “vulnerable adult” and to understand what constitutes abuse versus a consensual sexual relationship, the framework said the policies must acknowledge that when allegations are made, “power imbalances may exist between the complainant and respondent,” and those policies should be sensitive to the imbalance.

The framework includes an eight-page glossary of terms and lists under the heading of “vulnerable adult” not only people with cognitive impairments, but also those who “have suffered previous abuse” or who “in receiving a ministry are subject to a power imbalance.”

The power imbalance, it said, can be a result of the relationship, for example, between an “employer and employee, teacher and student, coach and athlete, parent or guardian and child, clergy/ religious and parishioner.”