News Analysis

The new abuse law is the biggest reform since 2001

Archbishop Scicluna (Getty Images)

Vos estis is a significant departure for the Church

Pope Francis has long argued that a thoroughgoing response to sexual abuse requires a conversion of heart and of ecclesial culture, rather than law. But law can be a mighty force in culture change, and the Holy Father did just that with his latest motu proprio mandating that all clerics must report sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable persons, abuse of authority for sexual purposes or any cover-up of the same.

Vos estis lux mundi is the most significant legislation since the motu proprio of St John Paul II in 2001, Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela. The latter mandated bishops to refer all cases of sexual abuse of minors to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which would then direct how the disciplinary cases were to be handled. It ended – in law – the capacity of the local bishop to handle the case, or not handle it, as he saw fit.

As an indication of how much has changed since 2001, when Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela – a veritable legal game-changer on sex abuse – was promulgated, it was done by means of a circular to bishops. No public release, no press conference. That the Church had even made this change only gained significant public attention when the scandals in Boston broke eight months later. In contrast, Vos estis was front-page news the world over the day it was released.

How much will Vos estis change matters? Consider the following entirely hypothetical case. I’ll use the Jesuits to illustrate how far-reaching the Holy Father’s reforms would be from his own perspective as a former Jesuit provincial. The same would apply to all religious institutes and dioceses, of course.

A Jesuit seminarian is his last year of formation, already ordained a deacon and thus a cleric, knows, or suspects with good reason, that the socius – the provincial’s chief deputy – is having consensual sexual relations with one of the novices. There is no coercion, no threats, and in fact such relationships are not altogether unknown in his province. They are not openly approved, but if discretion keeps them open secrets, no action is taken.

The deacon is now obliged by law to report the socius to the office set up by the Ordinary, in this case the father general of the Jesuits. It is likely to be an office set up by the local provincial. He has no option; he cannot let it pass, or decide to keep quiet. He must report it, with as much detail as he can provide, because it constitutes an ipso facto abuse of office for sexual purposes.

Let us suppose that the Jesuit delegate for such allegations consults the local provincial leadership about the situation and decides – given that the novice in question has made no complaints and is apparently content in the sexual relationship – that a disciplinary process is not in order. After all, none of parties directly involved have made an issue of it.

Now we have a cover-up. The deacon must, by law, report the matter and the father general/provincial to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and/or the Congregation for Religious, going through the papal nuncio if he wishes.

He has now reported both the socius and the father general/provincial to the Holy See, the former for sexual abuse of authority and the latter for the cover-up.

He may wish to write an account for the local newspaper or to speak about it to young men in the Jesuit discernment group on campus. As long as he does not engage in calumny, no action can be taken against him by the Jesuit province for speaking or writing publicly about the matter.

Any repercussions against the deacon are now legally prohibited. His provincial must now recommend him for priestly ordination, as to interrupt the normal progression would be “retaliation” for making the report. Indeed, if the provincial were to try to delay his priestly ordination, the deacon may be obliged to report the provincial to the father general for attempting to “interfere” in the necessary investigation. It would certainly alter the dynamics at the ordination.

Far-fetched? Perhaps, but still plausible, and it makes the point. What Vos estis mandates is a significant departure from the way things are done. If followed and enforced, it is not wrong to call it revolutionary.

Another revolutionary point? Vos estis stipulates that reporting “shall not constitute a violation of office confidentiality”. That’s an earthquake that will shake the foundations of every nunciature in the world and curial office in Rome.

It is a logical fallacy to argue that ex post Viganò ergo propter Viganò, but it is astonishing that the charge (correctly) levelled by curialists that Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò had massively violated the pontifical secret cannot be made in future. To the contrary, Viganò’s defence that the pontifical secret cannot be used to cover up crimes is now the law.

Am I overstating the scale of change? Possibly, in that other sexual abuse reforms announced in recent years by Pope Francis have been less effective in practice than on paper. But on paper, Vos estis is a revolution greater than that of Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela in 2001.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of