News Analysis

Will the new abuse law work in practice?

The new law sounds good on paper. Now it must be translated into reality

Pope Francis introduced reform legislation last week requiring all clerics and religious – men and women – to report abuse, cover-up, or suspicion of the same, to a higher authority.

Taking effect on June 1, the law establishes the “metropolitan system” for investigating allegations of abuse and coverup against bishops – so called because the law makes metropolitan archbishops responsible for conducting official inquiries into allegations against the bishops in their ecclesiastical provinces. Entitled Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”) the law also requires every diocese in the world to have a stable desk for receiving and processing all complaints within a year of the law coming into force.

The dicasteries of the Roman Curia are awaiting a major overhaul. How, precisely, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) will handle its new investigative oversight responsibilities, when it has a significant backlog of cases to try, is not addressed in the law itself. Nor are there provisions for the hiring of new staff and the training of new personnel, either in the CDF or in the other dicasteries with which some of the supervision is to be shared.

The law provides that “ecclesiastical provinces, episcopal conferences, synods of bishops and councils of hierarchs may create a fund” to pay for investigations. The law does not say “shall” or “must”, but “may create a fund”. Vos estis is silent about how the Vatican plans to pay for its side of things.

There is little in the way of provision for compliance enforcement in the new law.

That omission is unlikely to facilitate the law’s implementation. As Anne Barrett Doyle of the watchdog group, BishopAccoutability.org, rather bluntly put it: “A law without penalties is not a law at all. It’s a suggestion.” If there is a will to enforce the new law, it will have to find and pave its own way.

Transparency is another point on which Vos estis has faced criticism. The law says: “In compliance with the instructions of the competent dicastery, the metropolitan, upon request, shall inform the person who has alleged an offence, or his/her legal representatives, of the outcome of the investigation.” The language of Vos estis is rather more vague than that of the recent reform law for Vatican City. “In criminal proceedings,” the Vatican City law provides, “the injured person is informed about the rights and services available to him/her, as well as about the results, if requested, of the individual phases of the proceedings”, before listing other guarantees.

Criminal proceedings are not investigations. Trials happen after investigations are complete. Even so, there are ways to make it clear that reporters and injured parties are to be kept as fully in the loop as possible during the investigation phase. The language of Vos estis allows at least for broad interpretation on the part of information gatekeepers of what they ought to share – and lots of interpretative leeway often leads to narrow construction, especially in Church circles.

The law calls on everyone reporting abuse to abide by secular reporting requirements where there is law mandating it – without prejudice to the Seal of Confession – but stops short of requiring all Church reporters to go to public investigators as a matter of course. (In places where public authorities are generally trustworthy, it will still be prudent for reporters to take their information to the police.)

Beside scepticism about the metropolitan system as such – Theodore McCarrick and Bernard Law were both metropolitans at one time – perhaps the most important drawback of Vos estis is its lack of provision for stable and responsible lay involvement in the new reporting and accountability measures. It may turn out that the reform allows dioceses, ecclesiastical provinces and bishops’ conferences to address that.

In places like the United States, where the responsible participation of the laity is almost universally seen as a necessary condition of any effective response, the bishops could decide the new law is sufficiently open-ended in this regard to allow for local implementation that includes robust lay involvement.

One Vatican official with whom I spoke told me that a system of checks and balances makes some churchmen nervous because it conjures images of coequal branches of government, which is an idea repugnant to a system dependent upon a strict hierarchy.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis has insisted that “clericalism” is at the root of the crisis. By clericalism, he means disordered attachment to power. So, sharing power must be job number one for reformers. The great thing will be to make the power-sharing effective without violating the Church’s hierarchical constitution.

The argument runs that the presence of laity in responsible positions can provide a check on bishops’ discretion. Abuse of discretion is a go-to tool in the corrupt clerics’ toolbox, and abuse of discretion is abuse of power.

In the US and elsewhere, the twofold hope is that local-level implementation along these lines will not meet resistance from the home office, and that it will be enough to stop the haemorrhaging of trust.