Vulnerable adult definition clarified by Vatican

Vulnerable adult

The Vatican has narrowed the definition of cases directly overseen by its main doctrinal office, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

On January 30, the dicastery announced that it would specifically investigate and judge cases involving individuals “who habitually have an imperfect use of reason.”

This announcement delineates the jurisdiction of the doctrinal office, specifying that cases involving vulnerable adults with temporary limitations on their ability to understand, will or resist an offence should be referred to other Vatican departments.

This move seeks to address longstanding questions regarding the treatment of vulnerable adults within Church procedures, particularly in comparison to minors under the age of 18.

The discussion surrounding the protection of vulnerable adults from clerical sexual abuse has evolved over the past 15 years, with Church documents progressively acknowledging this group’s need for safeguarding.

However, ambiguity regarding the scope of this protection has prompted debates, especially concerning adults in positions of dependency such as those under the spiritual guidance of clergy.

The recent clarification from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith underscores a more precise approach to defining its jurisdiction, limiting its investigative responsibilities to minors and those with a habitual impairment in reasoning.

The Vatican indicates that other cases of abuse involving vulnerable adults fall under the purview of various other dicasteries, depending on the nature of the alleged perpetrator and the victim’s specific vulnerabilities.

This development represents the Vatican’s ongoing efforts to address and mitigate clerical sexual abuse, highlighting a structured and differentiated approach to various victim categories.

It acknowledges the complexity of vulnerability and the need for specialised attention across different ecclesiastical bodies to ensure justice and protection for all Church community members.

Historically, the Church’s legal framework has evolved to address the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults by clergy.

John Paul II’s 2001 document Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela initially tasked the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with overseeing cases of minor abuse.

This was expanded by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 to include developmentally disabled adults over 18.

Pope Francis further refined these definitions in his 2019 document Vos Estis Lux Mundi which distinguished minors and vulnerable persons based on their capacity to understand or resist abuse.


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