When the Vatican summit on clerical sex abuse concluded in February, the editors of this magazine argued that its effectiveness would be demonstrated by what happened after it was over. Would it prove more than a public-relations exercise? Would the searing testimony of abuse survivors send bishops home determined to undertake the work of accountability and reform? Would Pope Francis actually deliver the “concrete measures” he indicated were forthcoming? Not all of these questions can be fully answered yet. But just three months after the summit’s conclusion, Francis has proved that at least his own words were not empty promises, handing down Vos estis lux mundi (“You Are the Light of the World”), a motu proprio that establishes universal laws for reporting and investigating sex abuse.
The first section of the document states that bishops, priests, and members of religious orders must report to church officials both abuse and the cover-up of abuse. This applies to the abuse not only of minors, but also of vulnerable adults, including those forced “to perform or submit to sexual acts” through threats or “abuse of authority”—a clear reference to seminarians preyed on by those with power over them. The motu proprio takes effect this month, and within a year, “public, stable, and easily accessible” systems for submitting reports of abuse must be instituted in dioceses where they do not currently exist.
The document also provides protections for those who report abuse. Any retaliation or discrimination against whistleblowers is prohibited. The document underscores that reporting abuse does not violate “office confidentiality,” and that those who submit a report have no obligation to “keep silent” about their claims.
The second section of the motu proprio sets forth guidelines for investigating bishops or religious superiors who commit abuse or cover up abuse, following the so-called “metropolitan model” proposed by Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich. In these cases, a bishop would be investigated by the metropolitan of his ecclesiastical province; in cases where the metropolitan himself has been reported, the investigation would be undertaken by the Vatican. And all such claims must be handled without delay—an investigation must be opened within thirty days of receiving a report and concluded within ninety days.
Taken together, these new rules amount to a significant step forward in the church’s handling of sex abuse. But is it enough?