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Vos estis: revolution and realism

Archbishop Scicluna (Getty Images)

The radical new law may not be effective in practice

Last week the Vatican announced with much fanfare a new law concerning clerical abuse. The law, issued via the document Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”), was hailed instantly by some as revolutionary.

The new law, which comes into force on June 1, obliges priests and religious to report abuse to their superiors, requires every diocese in the world to have a system for reporting abuse, and gives metropolitan archbishops the power to investigate accusations against suffragan bishops. It also puts abuse of seminarians by superiors in the same criminal category as abuse of children and vulnerable adults.

We welcome all these measures. They show that the Vatican has grasped that abuse is a global scourge, rather than an “Anglo-Saxon” aberration. They also correctly identify fear of retribution as one of the main reasons preventing seminarians, priests and religious from reporting abuse, and offer protection to whistleblowers.

According to Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who presented the new law at a Vatican press conference, the document was inspired by the experience of the US Church. He told The Malta Independent: “In the autumn of last year, US bishops recognised that they need to have a structure and procedures for accountability of leadership in the Church. The Pope called a meeting of bishops in February and, as such, all initiatives were stayed until then … And now we have this new law.”

We should pay attention to what Archbishop Scicluna says about the norms, not only because he is the Church’s foremost abuse investigator but also because he is a realist. He has been careful not to oversell the new law, saying that it will take time for Church leaders to understand their new responsibilities, that nuncios will need to press local churches to meet the requirements and that further legal changes will probably be required.

Speaking to Italian journalists after the Vatican press conference, he also implied that some bishops’ conferences will drag their feet unless they feel pressure from the laity. “I would also ask the People of God to help the Pope,” he said. “If they have a right to denounce abuse, they also have the right to denounce a failure to create a system for doing that.” In other words, you can have the best law in the world, but if there is no will to enforce it then it is useless.

Perhaps the new law’s greatest weakness is that it appears to pay lip service to the laity’s role in exposing abuse. It is an open question whether a system in which senior bishops investigate junior bishops – the so-called metropolitan model – will help to restore badly damaged trust in countries such as the US and Chile.

As many have pointed out, the notorious Theodore McCarrick was himself a metropolitan archbishop and might have been able to avoid detection under this new system. In theory, accusations against metropolitan archbishops will be forwarded to the Holy See, but we cannot yet be certain that they will be investigated thoroughly.

Those who tried for decades to warn the Vatican about McCarrick are likely to remain sceptical.

The US bishops have a chance to address this lacuna when they meet in Baltimore next month. It would in no way contradict Vos estis or undermine Rome if they were to proceed with their plans to involve lay review boards in the investigation of allegations against bishops. They would be advancing into new territory in the battle against abuse. But if the experiment works, then they will have forged a model for effective lay engagement that could inspire other bishops’ conferences around the world.

The abuse survivor Marie Collins, a trenchant critic of the Church’s response to the crisis, has challenged those who present the new law as a revolution. “Crimes against children and vulnerable people by anyone in the Church are not to be kept secret but reported internally and investigated. What is so amazing about that?” she asked on Twitter. “Good to see it in concrete form but ‘revolutionary’?”

It is too early to judge whether Vos estis represents a sea change. It is perhaps best, at this stage, to see the new law as a bold statement of intent. We must wait to assess its impact.

What is certain is that the Church has not yet won the worldwide battle against abuse. That will take courageous and concerted effort from bishops and lay people alike for decades to come.