New rules on abuse mark a major step forward

The Vatican Curia moves slowly! So it is quite remarkable that less than three months after the conclusion of the Vatican summit on clergy sex abuse in February, Pope Francis’ new motu proprio, Vos estis lux mundi, establishes new laws for the universal Church regarding both the scourge of abuse and the equally abhorrent covering up of such abuse.

May 18, 2019

By Michael Sean Winters
The Vatican Curia moves slowly! So it is quite remarkable that less than three months after the conclusion of the Vatican summit on clergy sex abuse in February, Pope Francis’ new motu proprio, Vos estis lux mundi, establishes new laws for the universal Church regarding both the scourge of abuse and the equally abhorrent covering up of such abuse.

“Vos estis lux mundi (You are the light of the world) is one of the ‘concrete measures’ Pope Francis mentioned as a result of the February conference,” said Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, chair of the papal commission on clergy sex abuse of minors. The first such concrete measure was the March motu proprio that made the reporting of abuse mandatory for all who work in the Vatican itself. Those standards are now extended to the universal Church.

The first section of the document requires every diocese to establish protocols for reporting clergy sex abuse where they do not exist, and the protocols must be “public, accessible and reliable”. If you are ordained, or belong to a religious order, you are now a mandatory reporter of abuse. You can’t ignore it.

Francis has also indicated to the entire Church, from the local bishops to the Vatican dicasteries, that they cannot tarry in dealing with allegations. Timelines are set for all involved. If a metropolitan informs the Vatican of an allegation against a bishop, the relevant dicastery must respond within 30 days. The investigator must file a report every 30 days and complete his investigation within 90 days. What that means as a practical matter is that allegations cannot be buried in a backlog of Curial work: Allegations go to the front of the line in the work of a dicastery, as it should. Such timelines are unheard of in Vatican culture and represent Francis’ commitment to really changing the culture of the Church.

“The apostolic constitution establishes new procedural norms for the investigation of crimes by bishops and supreme moderators of religious institutes,” O’Malley pointed out. “There are different options for these investigations, but the first is that the metropolitan archbishop is mandated to investigate the alleged crime by a bishop or supreme moderator, whether it is an allegation of sexual abuse or cover-up of abuse.”

It is difficult to stress how important this is. Any attempt to interfere with an investigation — any obstruction of justice, as we would call it in our judicial system — is considered as a violation of the motu proprio. The episcopal conferences are granted different approaches that best suit their situations.

There are some who will find today’s reforms insufficient. Reporting requirements differ from state to state, let alone from country to country. As well, there is a lack of due process in some jurisdictions, and in other countries where the situation of the Church is so embattled, such a requirement could cause real harm to innocent people. A single approach, given this diversity of civil legal cultures, is not possible. The document does require Church personnel to comply with whatever reporting requirements the civil law demands.

Still, even the usual naysayers have to be impressed by this document, by its sweeping nature, and by the speed with which it was produced and promulgated. Can this work?

Let us be clear: Since this scandal first emerged in the ‘80s, Pope John Paul II set the pattern for obfuscation and a lack of accountability. Pope Benedict XVI was much stronger on processing cases against clergy, but removing bishops for failure to protect children was a bridge too far for him. Francis, in this document, says that this crisis affects the entire Church, it calls for a cultural change, ongoing vigilance, and increased transparency and accountability.

Then, is the fight over? Of course not. All this has to be implemented, foot-dragging must be confronted, episcopal conferences have protocols to establish, and Roman dicasteries have personnel to train. Still, this is no baby step forward.

(This article first appeared on NCRonline.org, the Website of National Catholic Reporter, and is being used with permission)

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