One of the most interesting, and largely overlooked or at least under-noticed, points of Pope Francis’s new Apostolic Letter motu proprio, Vos estis lux mundi, is a negative provision — a “shall not” — regarding reporters of abuse or coverup, or of suspicions regarding abuse or coverup. Article 4§3 states: “An obligation to keep silent may not be imposed on any person with regard to the contents of his or her report.” This frees reporters to go to the press.
One thing missing from the law is provision for enforcement: Vos estis does not contain any real provision for punishing non-compliance. In his regular weekend analysis column this past Sunday, Crux editor John Allen described the state of affairs as one in which Pope Francis is counting on the faithful themselves to hold their bishops’ feet to the fire. “Francis does appear to have thrown down a gauntlet in Vos Estis,” Allen wrote, “and perhaps, at least in part, is counting on public pressure to succeed where previous ecclesiastical mandates haven’t.”
Journalists have a job — a mission, even, to hear Pope Francis tell it — to inform the public. Churchmen can choose to cooperate with them, or they can stonewall. Noticieros Televisa’s veteran Vaticanologist, Valentina Alazraki, spelled it out for the participants in the child protection meeting at the Vatican earlier this year. “If you are against those who commit or cover up abuse, then we are on the same side. We can be allies, not enemies. We will help you to find the rotten apples and to overcome resistance in order to separate them from the healthy ones,” she said.
Churchmen can take her at her word, or not — eyes open to the fact that, in Alazraki’s words, “[T]here are reporters who are more thorough than others, and that there are media outlets more or less dependent on political, ideological or economic interests.” The significant development in Vos estis is that persons reporting abuse within the Church system no longer have to rely on any individual bishop’s willingness to be transparent, much less on any given hierarch’s judgement of what counts as transparency.
“[I]f you do not decide in a radical way to be on the side of the children, mothers, families, civil society,” Alazraki went on to say in her speech, “you are right to be afraid of us, because we journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies.” With one sentence in Article 4§3 of Vos estis, Francis hasn’t exactly taken the decision out of the bishops’ hands, but he has given Churchmen in leadership positions a major incentive — more stick than carrot, and he’s not holding the stick — to take a more open tack with the media.
Another possible clue to this “populist” gambit is found in Art. 3§5, which states: “Information can also be acquired ex officio.” Church authorities, in other words, could decide to open investigations based on news reports. Offices tasked with investigating crime need to have discretionary authority. They also need to be kept from abusing discretion. The various weights and measures available need to be tried out, if Churchmen really want to strike the ever-shifting balance between indifference to public pressure and supine subjection to it.
We need to see what happens when the law comes into force. One thing is certain: neither the public nor civil authorities will be too terribly patient with Church leaders who do not bring themselves quickly up to speed. (You can read more about it in this week’s edition of the Catholic Herald.)