‘You are the light of the world” – norms for the universal church dealing with abuse and the cover up of abuse

Vatican News

New norms for the whole Church against those who abuse or cover up


By Andrea Tornielli

Vos estis lux mundi”. “You are the light of the world… Our Lord Jesus Christ calls every believer to be a shining example of virtue, integrity and holiness”. The Gospel of Matthew provides the title and first words of Pope Francis’ new Motu proprio dedicated to the fight against sexual abuse committed by clerics and religious, as well as the actions or omissions of Bishops and Religious Superiors that in any way interfere with or fail to investigate abuse. The Pope recalls that “the crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful”, and mentions the special responsibility of the Successors of the Apostles to prevent these crimes. The document represents another result of the Meeting on the Protection of Minors held in the Vatican in February 2019. It establishes new procedural rules to combat sexual abuse and to ensure that Bishops and Religious Superiors are held accountable for their actions. It establishes universal norms, which apply to the whole Catholic Church.

An “office” for reporting in every diocese

Among the new indications given is the obligation for every Diocese in the world to set up, by June 2020, “one or more public, stable and easily accessible systems for submission of reports” concerning sexual abuse committed by clerics and religious, the use of child pornography, and cover-ups of the same abuse. The legislation does not specify what these “systems” consist of, because it leaves operational choices to the Diocese; and these may differ according to various cultures and local conditions. The idea is 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.

The obligation to report

Another new indication concerns the obligation for all clerics, and all men and women religious, to “report promptly” all accusations of abuse of which they become aware, as well as any omissions and cover-ups in the management of cases of abuse, to ecclesiastical authorities. Though this obligation was formerly left up to individual consciences, it now becomes a universally established legal precept. The obligation as such is sanctioned for clerics and religious, but any layperson can, and is encouraged to, use the system to report violence and abuse to the competent ecclesiastical authority.

Not only child abuse

The document covers not only violence and abuse against children and vulnerable adults, but also sexual abuse and violence resulting from an abuse of authority as well. This includes cases of violence against religious by clerics, as well as abuse committed against adult seminarians or novices.

Dealing with cover-ups

One of the most important elements is the identification, as a specific category, of so-called cover-ups, defined as “actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations, whether administrative or penal, against a cleric or a religious regarding the delicts” of sexual abuse. This section refers to those who hold positions of particular responsibility in the Church, and who, instead of pursuing abuses committed by others, have hidden them, and have protected alleged offenders instead of protecting the victims.

The protection of vulnerable people

Vos estis lux mundi stresses the importance of protecting minors (anyone under 18) and vulnerable people. The definition of a “vulnerable person” is broadened to include “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want to otherwise resist the offense”. In this respect, the new Motu proprio echoes recent Vatican legislation (CCXCVII of 26 March 2019).

Respecting the laws of states

The obligation to report to the local Ordinary or Religious Superior does not interfere with, or change, any other reporting obligation that may exist in respective countries’ legislation. In fact, the norms “apply without prejudice to the rights and obligations established in each place by state laws, particularly those concerning any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities”.

The protection of victims and those reporting abuse

The sections dedicated to protecting those who come forward to report abuse are also significant. According to the provisions of the Motu proprio, someone reporting abuse cannot be subjected to “prejudice, retaliation or discrimination” because of what they report. The problem of victims who in the past have been told to keep silent is also addressed: these universal norms provide that “an obligation to keep silent may not be imposed on any person with regard to the contents of his or her report”. Obviously, the seal of confession remains absolute and inviolable and is in no way affected by this legislation. Vos estis lux mundi also states that victims and their families must be treated with dignity and respect and must receive appropriate spiritual, medical and psychological assistance.

The investigation of bishops

The Motu proprio regulates the investigation of Bishops, Cardinals, Religious Superiors and all those who lead a Diocese, or another particular Church, in various capacities and even temporarily. The rules apply not only in the case of these persons being investigated for having committed sexual abuse themselves, but also if they are accused of having “covered up”, or of failing to pursue abuses of which they were aware, and which it was their duty to address.

The role of the Metropolitan

There are new indications regarding the role of the Metropolitan Archbishop in preliminary investigations: if the accused individual is a Bishop, the Metropolitan receives a mandate from the Holy See to investigate. This strengthens his traditional role in the Church and indicates a desire to make the most of local resources with regard to investigations into Bishops. Every thirty days, the person in charge of the investigation sends the Holy See “a status report on the state of the investigation”, which “is to be completed within the term of ninety days” (extensions for “just reasons” are possible). This establishes specific timeframes and requires the Vatican Dicasteries concerned to act promptly.

Involvement of the laity

Citing the Canon Law article that stresses the important contribution of the laity, the norms of the Motu proprio provide that the Metropolitan, in conducting the investigations, can avail himself of the help of “qualified persons”, according to “the needs of the individual case and, in particular, taking into account the cooperation that can be offered by the lay faithful”. The Pope has repeatedly stated that the specializations and professional skills of the laity represent an important resource for the Church. The norms now provide that Episcopal Conferences and Dioceses may prepare lists of qualified persons willing to collaborate, but the ultimate responsibility for investigations remains with the Metropolitan.

Presumption of innocence

The principle of presumption of innocence of the person under investigation is reaffirmed. The accused will be informed of the investigation when requested to do so by the competent Dicastery. The accusation must be notified only if formal proceedings are opened. If deemed appropriate, in order to ensure the integrity of the investigation or of the evidence, this notification may be omitted during the preliminary stage.

Conclusion of the investigation

The Motu proprio does not modify the penalties for crimes committed, but it does establish the procedures for reporting and carrying out the preliminary investigation. At the conclusion of the investigation, the Metropolitan (or, in certain cases, the Bishop of the suffragan Diocese with the greatest seniority of appointment) forwards the results to the competent Vatican Dicastery. This completes his contribution. The competent Dicastery then proceeds “in accordance with the law provided for the specific case”, acting on the basis of already existing canonical norms. Based on the results of the preliminary investigation, the Holy See can immediately impose preventive and restrictive measures on the person under investigation.

Concrete commitment

With this new juridical instrument, called for by Pope Francis, the Catholic Church takes a further and incisive step in the prevention and fight against abuse, putting the emphasis on concrete actions. As the Pope writes at the beginning of the document: “In order that these phenomena, in all their forms, never happen again, a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church”.


National Catholic Reporter


New rules on abuse mark a major step forward

by Michael Sean Winters

The Vatican Curia moves slowly, as we say here in New England, “Like molasses in January running uphill in a blizzard.” So it is quite remarkable that less than three months after the conclusion of the Vatican summit on clergy sex abuse in February, Pope Francis’ new motu proprio, Vos estis lux mundi, establishes new laws for the universal church regarding both the scourge of abuse and the equally abhorrent covering up of such abuse.

” ‘Vos estis lux mundi’ is one of the ‘concrete measures’ Pope Francis mentioned as a result of the February conference,” Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, chair of the papal commission on clergy sex abuse of minors, told NCR in an email. The first such concrete measure was the March motu proprio that made the reporting of abuse mandatory for all who work in the Vatican itself. Those standards are now extended to the universal church.

The first section of the document requires every diocese to establish protocols for reporting clergy sex abuse where they do not exist, and the protocols must be “public, accessible and reliable.” There can be no way to scotch an inquiry because the accused is a good friend or an old seminary classmate. In addition, abuse of “vulnerable persons” is now to be treated with the same procedures as child abuse, as are cases of abuse of power, for example when a seminarian is violated, as abuse of a minor. If you are ordained, or belong to a religious order, you are now a mandatory reporter of abuse. You can’t ignore it.

Francis has also indicated to the entire church, from the local bishops to the Vatican dicasteries, that they cannot tarry in dealing with allegations. Timelines are set for all involved. If a metropolitan informs the Vatican of an allegation against a bishop, the relevant dicastery must respond within 30 days. The investigator must file a report every 30 days and complete his investigation within 90 days. What that means as a practical matter is that allegations cannot be buried in a backlog of Curial work: Allegations go to the front of the line in the work of a dicastery, as it should be. Such timelines are unheard of in Vatican culture and represent Francis’ commitment to really changing the culture of the church.

Another part of the document that I had not expected deals with the need to protect those who level an allegation of abuse or cover-up. They are protected from retaliation or discrimination and the text explicitly states that they cannot be prevented from speaking to their friends and family or to the public, provided they do not engage in calumny. The document notes that civil laws generally cover such issues. The motu proprio also entitles the victims to information about the resolution of their case. Remember that is one of the reasons Marie Collins cited for quitting the Child Protection Commission was that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith refused to even acknowledge receipt of an allegation with a letter to the victims. Francis has clearly put the entire Curia on notice: Stop being inhumane.

Even more significant is the second section of the document which considers allegations against bishops and religious superiors.

“The apostolic constitution establishes new procedural norms for the investigation of crimes by bishops and supreme moderators of religious institutes,” O’Malley pointed out. “There are different options for these investigations, but the first is that the metropolitan archbishop is mandated to investigate the alleged crime by a bishop or supreme moderator, whether it is an allegation of sexual abuse or cover-up of abuse.”

Read that last sentence again: The cover-up of abuse is treated with the same degree of seriousness and in the same way as abuse itself. That is how you change the hierarchic culture that perpetuated this scandal. It must be reported just as sex abuse must be reported.

It is difficult to stress how important this is. Any attempt to interfere with an investigation — any obstruction of justice, as we would call it in our judicial system — is considered as a violation of the motu proprio. The episcopal conferences are granted different approaches that best suit their situations. The “metropolitan proposal” first proposed at last November’s bishops’ conference meeting, modified and significantly developed here, is the one most likely to be adopted because it builds on existing structures and it is in keeping with the ecclesiology of Vatican II. We will need to speak with some canonists in the days ahead to see exactly how today’s proposal differs from earlier ones, but it is clear it is more comprehensive and is also cognizant of the need to avoid a conflict of interest, which some of the early metropolitan proposals did not address.

Whichever option is chosen, the involvement of lay people is encouraged but not required. This will disappoint many and I am not sure why lay involvement was not made mandatory. It could be that the Vatican is rightly spooked by American lay leaders of the Raymond Arroyo, Tim Busch, John Garvey and George Weigel variety, men who have glommed onto the issue as part of a more general critique of this papacy, and suiting proposals for reform to their ideological measurements.

There are some who will find today’s reforms insufficient. For example, I expect some will complain that the document does not require allegations be reported to civil authorities, but only imposes reporting requirements under church law. Reporting requirements differ from state to state, let alone from country to country. As well, there is a lack of due process in some jurisdictions, and other countries where the situation of the church is so embattled, such a requirement could cause real harm to innocent people. A single approach, given this diversity of civil legal cultures, is not possible. But, the criticism will surely be made. The document does require church personnel to comply with whatever reporting requirements the civil law demands.

Still, even the usual naysayers have to be impressed by this document, by its sweeping nature, and by the speed with which it was produced and promulgated. Can this work? In one sense, it already did: The proposal for investigating a bishop outlined here is almost exactly what happened in the case of now-former cardinal Theodore McCarrick: The allegation came to the archdiocese of New York, which contacted the Vatican, which authorized the archdiocese to conduct an investigation, which was sent to Rome for adjudication.

The critics of Francis will no doubt refuse to be appeased. Those in the Vatican Curia who have complained “What about the rights of the bishops?” and who hate reform tooth and nail, they have been silenced by this document.

And, let us be clear: Since this scandal first emerged in the ’80s, Pope John Paul II set the pattern for obfuscation and a lack of accountability. Pope Benedict XVI was much stronger on processing cases against clergy, but removing bishops for failure to protect children was a bridge too far for him. Francis, in this document, says what we at NCR have been saying for sometime: This crisis affects the entire church, it calls for a cultural change, ongoing vigilance, and increased transparency and accountability.

Is the fight over? Of course not. All this has to be implemented, foot-dragging must be confronted, episcopal conferences have protocols to erect, and Roman dicasteries have personnel to train. Still, this is no baby step forward. I had not anticipated the reforms announced this morning would be so sweeping. I am delighted that they are so.

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One Comment

  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    I’m somewhat troubled by the resemblance with the Sodalitium Pianum.

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