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Analysis: How the Pope’s reform will change abuse reporting

A boy goes to meet Pope Francis at the end of the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square (Getty Images)

Pope Francis decreed sweeping legislative reform on Thursday, designed to address the crisis of abuse and especially abuse cover-up by senior Church leaders. Vos estis lux mundi is the name of the Apostolic letter issued Motu proprio — on the pope’s own initiative — establishing procedures for reporting and investigating crimes of abuse and coverup, which shall go into effect on June 1 and remain in place on a trial basis for three years.

The core of the reform law is a series of provisions making Metropolitan Archbishops responsible for investigating and disciplining wayward, malfeasant or negligent bishops within their provinces. The new law requires clerics and religious to report abuse and cover-up to competent ecclesiastical authority, and to abide by secular authorities’ reporting laws where they exist. It does not require clerics or religious to report to civil authorities where there is no law in civil jurisdiction requiring them to do so.

The legislation requires speedy reporting and prompt investigation, with competent curial dicasteries given 30 days to instruct Metropolitans and investigations having 90 days to be completed, unless otherwise specified or requested. The law also envisions significant interdicasterial communication and cooperation. It does not explicitly address the question of funding, staffing, or mechanics of cooperation within the Roman Curia — which is in any case slated for a major overhaul in the coming months.

Under the supervision of the Holy See, senior suffragans will investigate metropolitans accused of misconduct, or conduct investigations into other bishops of the province when the Metropolitan see is vacant.

The abuse and coverup to be reported regards not only minors but also vulnerable persons, including seminarians and religious novices. The legislation also creates certain limited protections and guarantees for persons who report abuse, mishandling or cover-up. It explicitly allows — but does not require — reporters to comply with secular law and cooperate with law enforcement.

The law gives every diocese in the world one year to set up an office to receive and handle reports. It is, however, short on specifics regarding how the offices are to be staffed, how they are to function and even what they are to do.

“The legislation does not specify what these ‘systems’ consist of,” explained Vatican News Editorial Director Andrea Tornielli in a note distributed to journalists on Thursday morning, “because it leaves operational choices to the Diocese; and these may differ according to various cultures and local conditions.” The general idea is, according to Tornielli, “that anyone who has suffered abuse can have recourse to the local Church, while being assured they will be well received, protected from retaliation, and that their reports will be treated with the utmost seriousness.”

It is not clear what role laity are to have, neither in the stable oversight of bishops nor in particular investigations. Vos estis allows bishops and Metropolitans to avail themselves of lay experts but makes it clear that investigation and discipline is the responsibility of ecclesiastical authority.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna told the Catholic Herald the new legislation is a “step forward” from the 2016 law, As a loving mother, which dealt with failures of governance and made it easier — on paper at any rate — for the pope and competent dicasteries of the Roman Curia to discipline and remove bishops and religious superiors who had been negligent in the exercise of their governing responsibilities, even when their negligence was not criminal.

“Whether it is using As a loving mother or not,” Archbishop Scicluna told the Herald, “I think the more important aspect is that persons who are not able to govern, to deliver on stewardship, and being shepherds of the community — you know — are removed from office. That is what As a loving mother says.” Archbishop Scicluna was unable to say how many bishops had been disciplined under the provisions of As a loving mother. Archbishop Scicluna went on to say, “I think that this new law,” i.e. Vos estis, “makes the equally important statement, that leadership is not above the law.”

In an interview with Vatican News and L’Osservatore Romano, the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, said bishops need not fear they are under the microscope.

Asked whether, with the publication of the Motu proprio, bishops “ought to feel themselves under observation or suspect,” Cardinal Ouellet responded, “Absolutely not.” He went on to say, “We know that thanks to God almost all the bishops, like priests and religious, are men who try to follow the example of Jesus Christ in everyday life, bearing witness to his Gospel.” Cardinal Ouellet also said, “[W]here there is a difficulty, we must face it, especially if it involves a bishop. The successors of the apostles as well as the religious superiors have a particular responsibility in guarding the flock that has been entrusted to them and if someone does not act according to truth and justice, putting the protection of minors and their faith in the first place, he must give an account of it.”