Priests have been warned not to make “indecent, vulgar or sexual” remarks on social media, in new guidelines unveiled by the Catholic Church.
The guidelines, Pastoral Standards and Safe Practices in the Conduct of Ministry, which have been sent to every bishop, secular and religious priest and deacon, set out how to guard against abuse and recognise it when it occurs.
It comes following a damning report published by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) which found that Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Pope’s representative in England and Wales, failed to show “personal responsibility and compassion” for child sex abuse victims and instead focused on Church reputation, an Inquiry has concluded.
However, the guidance also focuses on clergy behaviour online, particularly on social media.
Drawn up by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, the guidelines state: “Never make disparaging remarks about children or adults at risk, neither in private conversation, public discourse nor on social media.”
The guidelines go into more detail about acceptable behaviour on new forms of communication, stating: “Use electronic forms of communication and other media, respectfully, responsibly and transparently.”
That means priests must never invite children or adults at risk, or accept invitations from them, to be “friends” or contacts on any personal social media sites they use, or otherwise interact with them on those sites.
In 2007 the Cumberlege Commission Report recommended codes of conduct for all clergy, non-clergy religious and lay people working within the Catholic Church.
Codes of conduct were provided for non-clergy religious and lay people, including volunteers.
The bishops believe that the code which governs the conduct and all aspects of the life and ministry of priests is the Code of Canon Law.
However, in this latest document, the bishops now state that “there remains a need for further guidance, training and ongoing formation concerning the conduct of clergy specifically in relation to their ministry of safeguarding”.
Clergy must also refrain from communicating with a child on a one-on-one basis via technology or social media, including text messages or email, unless they have first obtained the written consent of that child’s parent or legal guardian.
The guidelines add: “Never use profane language or make indecent, vulgar or sexual comments; nor make jests or pranks that could be reasonably perceived as suggestive by others.
“Our Lord declares that one of the gravest sins is to cause one of his ‘little ones’ to stumble, to cause them to lose faith.
“The sexual abuse of a child or an adult at risk constitutes this gravest of sins.”
Among other actions, the document states: “Immediately follow the applicable reporting procedures if abuse or neglect is suspected, observed or alleged.”
Other specifics in the guidelines include an order never to use their status “to solicit or obtain any personal benefit or financial advantage”.
That means priests must refrain from managing the finances and goods of any lay person, especially an adult at risk, without the permission of a bishop.
In a foreword to the report, Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, said: “The pastoral standards presented here arise from the mandate given by the Lord to every ordained minister.
“They do not come from ‘outside’, from another set of standards which are to be imposed on the nature of priestly ministry.”
He added: “The outlook, expectations, and requirements contained in this document spring from the Church’s own understanding of the gifts entrusted to her and how they are to be employed.
“With equal clarity, this document makes plain that which is simply not acceptable, that which is lax practice, and that which is all too often absent from the daily disciplines of good pastoral care.”
He added: “I can see how this document will provide a further building block in our response to the scandal of abusive relationships within the community of the Catholic Church, which have damaged so many innocent people.
“The formation and training that will be constructed from this document will make clear that our work of safeguarding, its supervision and its development, must be seen as an essential part of the proclamation of the Gospel.
“This aspiration has often been expressed in recent years, but this document shows how it can indeed be fulfilled.”