The motu proprio, Vos estis lux mundi, which Pope Francis presented to the public on Thursday, goes into effect on June 1st. On paper, the new law is a sweeping reform of reporting requirements and accountability procedures, aimed primarily at bishops.
Lots of ink has been spilled explaining what is in the new law. The basics are that it establishes a version of the “metropolitan system”, so called because it makes metropolitan archbishops responsible for investigating suffragan bishops in their ecclesiastical provinces. It also requires clerics and religious to report abuse, coverup, or the suspicion of either, to competent ecclesiastical authority. The law also requires clerics and religious — men and women — to abide by secular reporting requirements in jurisdictions that have them.
The abuse to be reported is, moreover, not only that suspected to have been committed against minors, but also that against “vulnerable persons” including, but not limited to seminarians and novices. The new law provides some protection to whistleblowers, establishing that “prejudice, retaliation or discrimination as a consequence of having submitted a report is prohibited,” and could itself even be considered coverup.
There is one question: will it work? The faithful impatient of real accountability will not wait long, and someone has to try it out. In 2016, Pope Francis issued a motu proprio, “As a loving mother”, that provided for the removal of bishops who failed to govern effectively, without resorting to protracted and cumbersome legal proceedings. If Pope Francis or the dicasteries of the Roman Curia — all empowered on paper to use the law, “As a loving mother” — have seen fit to use it, the Holy See has not told us about it.
Pope Francis did speak to the question of disciplining bishops, in answer to a journalist’s query during the in-flight presser en route to Rome from Dublin in late August 2018.
“Marie Collins,” asked Paddy Agnew for the Sunday Independent, “said that you are not favorable to a new tribunal for Vatican inquiries on the issue of abuses, new inquiries on the problem of sexual abuse, and in particular on a so-called tribunal of inquiry on bishops, bishop accountability: Why do you think this is not necessary?” Pope Francis responded:
No, no, it is not like this. Marie Collins is a bit fixated on the idea that came up. I esteem Marie Collins so much. At times, we call her to give Vatican conferences. She is fixated on the idea, the idea of [“As a loving mother”], in which it is said that to judge bishops, that it would be good to have a special tribunal. Then, we saw this wasn’t practical and it also wasn’t convenient for the different cultures of the bishops that had to be judged.
You take the recommendations of “As a loving mother” and you make [a special commission of bishops, It. giuria] for each bishop, but it’s not the same. This bishop is judged and the Pope makes a [commission] that is more capable of taking that case. It is a thing that works better and also because not all bishops are able to leave their dioceses. It’s not possible.
In this way, the tribunals, the [commissions] change. And that’s what we’ve done up until now. Rather many bishops have been judged.
If “rather many” have been judged — whether under “As a loving mother” or by other means — we have heard of rather few. Ted McCarrick and Archbishop Anthony Apuron of Guam come to mind, but no others. Without meaningful transparency in these and other regards, it is difficult to imagine any paper guarantee capable of restoring confidence in the Church’s ability to administer justice. One wonders, as well, why Church leaders should be more eager to use a new law providing a framework for criminal investigation, when they were apparently so reticent to use the law that made it possible to deal with wayward bishops without having to try them.
The timeframes the new law establishes for are also worthy of note: 30 days to authorize an investigation into a bishop and assign a competent Roman dicastery to oversee and instruct it; 90 days to complete the investigation, unless otherwise requested or specified; investigators’ reports to the competent dicastery every 30 days. It takes Rome several months to answer correspondence. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which shall presumably handle the lion’s share of complaints, already has a several years’ backlog. Presumably, CDF and other dicasteries will have to hire and train staff to handle investigations. It will take a good while for the new system to get up to speed, especially considering the coming curial overhaul.
There are several situations that could provide tests.
A major one is in Buffalo, New York, where the local Ordinary, Bishop Richard J. Malone, has been facing calls for his resignation ever since it emerged that he mishandled several abuse cases and botched the release of the names of accused priests in Buffalo. On Bishop Malone’s watch, there have been serious issues regarding the formation of seminarians, as well. His former secretary, Siobhan O’Connor, resigned her position and blew the whistle on Bishop Malone last summer.
O’Connor is out of her job, which she left when she could not stomach the conduct of her principal, Bishop Malone. O’Connor made her choice, and told the press about the doings in the Buffalo chancery. Bishop Malone and his auxiliary, Bishop Edward Grosz, are still in their jobs, and there is no indication that any ecclesiastical authority has taken any action in their regard.
The role of the laity in the work of reform is another major question mark. Vos estis allows bishops and bishops’ conferences to enlist the assistance of willing and qualified lay persons, but does not mandate their involvement in receiving reports, investigating cases, or keeping the faithful and the broad public informed of investigators’ progress — or lack of it. For all his talk of clericalism being the root of the crisis in the Church — he’s not wrong — and his constant reminders that we’re all in this together, Pope Francis has given the Church a tool for investigating and disciplining clerics that is very much to be wielded by other clerics.
The new law is a procedural framework, which, as of June 1st, shall apply to the reporting and investigation of crimes or the suspicion of crimes of abuse and coverup, whenever it may have been committed. Again, the one question regarding the new law is: will it work? Time will tell, but the clock is ticking. Neither the faithful, nor the broad public, nor prosecutors, are likely to show much patience.
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