Cover image: Star Chamber (etching,1836) in Old and new London – a narrative of its history, its people, and its places, 1873
Pope Francis’s sweeping reform legislation, Vos estis lux mundi, came into effect on June 1st, 2019. The law facilitated Church investigations of abuse and coverup, and streamlined the process for trying and punishing abusers and their abettors. It also promised consistency and transparency – consistent transparency – in its application.
“[Vos estis] applies as from June 1, 2019,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna — the Church’s leading expert on the legal side of child protection — in remarks to the Catholic Herald at the time the Vatican presented the new law to journlists and the public, “for the reporting and investigation of misconduct whenever [it] may have happened.”
Even where Church leaders have used the law — in Crookston, Mn., for example — the results have been lacklustre, to say the very least.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis investigated Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner of Crookston. Pope Francis allowed Hoeppner to resign — and preside over his own farewell Mass — then kept his reasons for demanding Hoeppner’s resignation to himself.
In short: To say that Vos estis has been applied inconsistently is to put oneself in the running for Understatement of the Decade.
Leave aside the episodes of misapplication or non-application that we may attribute to reasons ranging from persistent incompetence to blatant skullduggery. What’s left is the inevitable learning curve.
Churchmen still have a lot to learn, and that is owing at least in part to the fact that Church investigations have been for so long a mere formality. Almost no one knows how to do them. Even otherwise well-intentioned senior Churchmen may be reticent to order investigations when they get a whiff of bad doings, because they’re afraid of coming back without enough to secure a slam-dunk conviction.
The whole ecclesiastical leadership culture has to change: not in a sentimental, “caring about the victims” way, either. Caring about the victims is a bare minimum, a baseline requirement, the measure of which is in its effects. That means the culture needs to change in practical, nuts-and-bolts ways.
Not every investigation needs to lead to a canonical trial. Not every trial needs to lead to a conviction. Some investigations will exonerate the Churchmen subject to them, and some of them will be senior men. Other investigations will discover very bad decisions and very poor judgment that nevertheless was not criminal. Those need to lead to consequences short of trial.
Some investigations will lead to trial and acquittal. Some will lead to trial and conviction.
After years of desultory attempts that have left this Vatican watcher wondering whether reforms aren’t perhaps designed not to work, it would be a start.
Changing the culture: inside-out
Within chanceries, the general maxim of conduct too often appears to be: “Don’t be dumb enough to get caught committing a go-to-jail crime.” The reason for the rule is that it’s all one need to do in order not to lose one’s job, at least if one is a cleric.
That has to change, too.
Priests and bishops need to stop thinking of losing a chancery job and/or getting knocked down the ecclesiastical ladder as punishments. They are consequences, sure. Still, if you keep your state, and continue to exercise orders, you’re doing pretty well. If you escape trial, you’re not being punished in any meaningfully applicable sense of the word.
Senior administrators need to learn that there is a difference between knowing what’s going on in your bailiwick and micromanaging everything, just as there is a difference between giving people room to operate and creating a buffer to ensure plausible deniability.
Whatever one’s “managerial style” may be, surrounding oneself with yes-men has been a recipe for disastrous leadership in the Church as in the world for as long as there have been bureaucracies — and there has been bureaucracy in the Church at least since St. Peter looked around and said, “One of you take a letter.”
Bishops need to learn that they need people in the room, who will speak up and push back. The bishops won’t like what those folks have to say, but that’s why they need to hear it.
Changing the culture: outside-in
Churchmen also need people on the outside taking a keen and knowledgeable interest in their doings, and that’s where journalists come in.
Our culture needs to change, as well. We need to be more willing than we frequently are, to “get our hands dirty” as Pope Francis says — to dig for the story as long as we must, and get it, and get it right, and get it out — and to care a whole lot less about how readers feel or what Churchmen think of us.
Reporters in particular — those who are professionally engaged in following and chronicling the doings of the Church — are used to working with Churchmen and their communications people.
We depend on them for information, and are loath to burn bridges. We cultivate all kinds of sources, but we need relationships with official mouthpieces in order to do the job properly. Frankly, we don’t have much about which to write without them.
That said, their job is increasingly to run interference for their principals. This must mean that journalists’ work will increasingly be to break through the interference, or find ways around it.
Political reporters are used to being in an adversarial position, or at least recognizing that the goals and duties of reporters are at least different from the goals and duties of the pols they cover and the flacks who speak for them. They’ll ask the hard questions. They’ll keep asking them until they get answers.
If Churchmen are willing to tell the truth — without obfuscation or omission, to say nothing of outright lies — then the relationship between reporters and Churchmen can be cordial, because the goals of both can coincide to a degree.
If Churchmen are going to hide the truth, to be preoccupied with their standing in the CYA Olympics, rather than concerned for the good of souls, then our relationship will necessarily be adversarial.
Valentina Alazraki said it best, in her speech to Churchmen during the 2019 child protection meeting at the Vatican: “If you are against those who commit or cover up abuse, then we are on the same side,” she said. “We can be allies, not enemies,” she continued. “We will help you to find the rotten apples and to overcome resistance in order to separate them from the healthy ones.”
“If you do not decide in a radical way to be on the side of the children, mothers, families, civil society,” she went on to say, “you are right to be afraid of us, because we journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies.”
It really is as simple as that.
“Simple,” however, doesn’t mean easy. On both sides, it will be a business easier said than done.
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