A Vatican summit on abuse prevention next February will gather the presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world. While a Sept. 12 statement from the Vatican said the gathering’s theme would be the “protection of minors,” a Vatican representative clarified that the meeting would discuss “prevention of abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.”
Wednesday’s announcement of the meeting has raised questions about who the Church considers to be a “vulnerable adult.”
The USCCB’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People does not use the term “vulnerable adult.”
Nor do the “Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing With Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons,” which are binding Church policies for addressing sex-abuse allegations in the United States.
Several dioceses, do, however, define the term in their own sexual-abuse policies.
Policies of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis say: “‘Vulnerable adult’ means persons with physical, mental or emotional conditions that render them unable to defend or protect themselves, or get help when at risk of harm.”
In the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, “an adult 18 years or older is considered vulnerable when, because of impairment of mental or physical functions, that person is unable or unlikely to report abuse or neglect without assistance.”
The Archdiocese of Miami defines a “vulnerable person” as “a minor under 18 years of age or a person whose ability to perform normal activities of daily living is impaired due to a mental, emotional, long-term physical or developmental disability or dysfunction, or brain damage or the infirmities of aging.”
The Archdiocese of Washington’s policies for child protection say that “a vulnerable individual over the age of seventeen (17) is also covered by this policy … when such a person is unable or unlikely to report abuse without assistance because of impairment of physical or mental function or emotional status.”
Edward Mechmann, director of the Safe Environment Program in the Archdiocese of New York, told CNA that the archdiocese considers a vulnerable person to be “a person of any age who lacks the capacity to give consent due to a mental or developmental condition or disability.”
The Code of Canon Law does not use or define the term “vulnerable adult.” However, the Church’s 2010 “Norms on Delicta Graviora” say that “a person who habitually lacks the use of reason is to be considered equivalent to a minor” with regard to allegations of clerical sexual abuse.
The February summit was announced in the wake of clerical sexual-misconduct allegations across the Church involving minors, as well as allegations of misconduct that targeted seminarians, priests and other adults.
On Aug. 14, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report documenting 70 years of sexual abuse allegations in six dioceses in that state. On Sept. 12, a report from the German bishops’ conference documented allegations of clerical sexual abuse during a similar time period.
On June 20, the Archdiocese of New York announced that it had deemed credible an allegation that Archbishop Theodore McCarrick had serially sexually abused a teenage boy in the 1970s. Subsequent reports, however, allege that McCarrick had serially sexually coerced and assaulted seminarians and young priests during decades of his episcopal ministry in New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
Mechmann told CNA that the term “vulnerable adult,” as his archdiocese defines it, “would not include seminarians. It is really aimed at protecting people who have developmental disabilities or cognitive disabilities, for instance someone who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.”
“A sound diocesan policy, however, would also encompass any kind of non-consensual sexual conduct, even if it is not strictly covered by the charter,” Mechmann added.
The Archdiocese of New York’s “Policy on Sexual Misconduct” includes in its definition of sexual misconduct “any sexual act with another person without consent,” as well as “any sexual conduct that is a violation of civil law.”
Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the USCCB’s Office for Child and Youth Protection, told CNA that several U.S. dioceses use the definition of “vulnerable adult” provided by civil law.
That definition often refers to a “dependent adult,” he said.
Nojadera noted that “there is nothing in [the charter] that talks about differential of power. So if you’re looking at differential of power, that’s not addressed in the charter.”
“That’s where applicability of state law comes in, with regard to the differential of power. A lot of dioceses are looking at their state laws and trying to apply them accordingly,” he said.
With regard to allegations of abuse involving seminarians and other adults, he said he thinks “it would be wise for those types of situations to also be brought forward” at the February meeting of bishops.
“I would hope that there would be a seat at the table for seminarians and for that issue to be addressed,” he told CNA.
In addition to the abuse of minors, vulnerable adults, seminarians and other adults, Nojadera noted other situations that could, in his view, be addressed, mentioning the difficulties faced by the children of priests, the use of corporal punishment in the Church, and situations involving religious orders.
He also mentioned the importance of consulting with victims of clerical sexual abuse.
“I would hope that survivor victims were invited to this table as well, to be able to address [the meeting],” he said.
Nojadera said that his office often looks for insights from victims of clerical sexual abuse, calling their perspective “invaluable.”
“There’s an awareness that those who have not been abused do not have.”
He also encouraged broader lay involvement in discussions about sexual misconduct in the Church. “The lay faithful have been offering to help and contribute to the solution to this,” he said.
Nojadera said he hopes the February summit will take an expansive view of abuse-related problems in the Church.
“I think we have an opportunity here to just talk about abuse in general. Period.”
“Hopefully,” he said, “they’ll have an opportunity to see the big picture.”
J.D. Flynn is the editor in chief of Catholic News Agency.