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?
Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-director of BishopAccountability.org, acknowledged that the decree makes important changes, but laments that it does not specify penalties for those found guilty of abuse: “[I]t’s still entirely possible for a bishop to punish a child-molesting priest with a slap on the wrist and to keep his name hidden from the public.” The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), while admitting the motu proprio includes “some good things,” also issued a statement criticizing it for not mandating that bishops report abuse to law enforcement, though it does require bishops to comply with the relevant civil laws in their jurisdictions. “We would have been far more impressed if this new law required church officials to report to police and prosecutors instead,” SNAP said. “Oversight from external, secular authorities will better protect children and deter cover-ups.” Others have complained that the document does not demand lay involvement in investigations, and so matters are left to church officials.
These criticisms are not without merit. But reporting abuse to the police, for example, should not be required everywhere. In places where Catholics are a persecuted minority, it would do little to ensure justice—and perhaps put the lives of priests at risk. And greater lay involvement would no doubt be a good thing, though the mechanisms for such involvement are not nearly as developed in other parts of the world as they are in the United States.
What’s essential to keep in mind is that Francis’s motu proprio is a necessary and constructive next step when it comes to handling sex abuse and its cover-up. It provides fundamental rules that apply to the entire church rather than a patchwork of procedures tailored to every diocese worldwide. This is in keeping with the “healthy decentralization” Francis has encouraged since the start of his papacy. Nothing prevents local bishops or bishops’ conferences from doing more than the document requires—it is a floor, not a ceiling. In the United States, lay involvement has generally been deemed an important part of the Dallas Charter’s success, a key element of transparency and accountability in handling accusations of abuse against the lower clergy. When the USCCB meets in June, they certainly should consider the use of qualified lay people to investigate bishops accused of wrongdoing.
Vos estis lux mundi should be received with neither cynicism nor complacency. It is one of the most decisive actions Rome has taken since the emergence of the sex-abuse crisis decades ago. We can acknowledge this while regretting that it took so long, and insisting that there is still much more work to do.