Will Pope Francis’ reforms, aimed primarily at bishops, really work?

It will take a good while for the new system called for by the motu proprio, Vos estis lux mundi,  to get up to speed and there are serious questions about the lack of a mandate for lay involvement.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta and Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, together with Alessandro Gisotti of the Vatican press office, present Pope Francis' new document on abuse norms, "Vos estis lux mundi" ("You are the light of the world") at the Vatican May 9, 2019. (CNS Photo/Robert Duncan)

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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About Christopher R. Altieri 198 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. I say it will not work. The boy’s club look after each other. How can we expect thieves to report thieves. Evil is so entrenched in the hierarchy. I have lost trust in the Bishops bar a few and the one I distrust the most is the Bishop of Rome.

    • Exactly right. Look at what is being done. The whole thing is a sham and a masquerade. To begin with, it is only prospective (June 1) so that a firewall on all the previous 50 years of filth is sealed. Even then there is only a 3-year trial period, so the “reform” can simply end and disappear or be amended out of existence. Then whistleblower reports are required only to the bishop/superior — and there are no penalties attached if they are not, so an empty and meaningless show of “progress”. Then the bishop/superior (and original whistleblower) are not required to report to civil authorities for criminal investigation and prosecution and no penalties are attached if they don’t — so, another empty and meaningless show of “progress”. If reports are made, who investigates? Well, the metropolitan bishop, like the faithless and corrupt Maloney, Cupich, Wuerl, McCarrick, etc. And of course no provision is made if the report concerns a metropolitan bishop himself. The investigation by the metropolitan bishop is secret and does not have to be disclosed to the faithful and does not even have to use competent laymen but is only permitted to use them if it wishes. Finally, any report and canonical action against the abuser is secret and does not have to be disclosed to the faithful. Mr. Altieri and everyone else needs to look at this scam objectively and rationally to see it for the fraud that it is’ namely, the boys’ club looking after one another.

    • There is also an outside dimension to this scam, which is to do “absolutely nothing to address (1) ‘consensual’ acts of sodomy involving clerics and their willing partners in one of the sins that cry out to Heaven for retribution; (2) the ‘production, exhibition, possession or distribution’ of adult (versus child) pornography, or (3) consensual adult participation in pornographic exhibitions.”

      “That is, the entire ‘gay subculture’ and its practices among the clergy are left untouched so long as they do not manifest themselves in criminal offences against minors or the coercion of ‘vulnerable’ adult partners in sodomy. Otherwise, [the scam] exhibits no concern about sexual ‘delicts against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue.’”

      The quote is from Chris Ferrara’s article “Pope Francis Signs Document Protecting ‘Consensual’ Clerical Sodomy” here: https://fatima.org/news-views/fatima-perspectives-1301/

  2. Bishops are mortal. Prayer can move mountains. We need to pray for the conversion and well-being of our Bishops.

    • I agree, Dr Coelho. However consider. In December 1862 Abraham Lincoln gave a speech about his soon to be law, (on January 1, 1863) the emancipation of the slaves. He said, “The dogmas of the quite past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country”. I believe the same logic holds to the “stormy present” in the Church. We must think anew and act anew. By this I mean we must take off the gloves and rid the Church of those, beginning with the seminaries, that promote and and support a homosexual lifestyle. The Church has defined homosexuality as an intrinsic disorder. This being the case it should not be accepted in the seminaries for any potential candidate to the priesthood AND of any existing priest, bishop or cardinal. Why can’t the Church be the first institution to offer concrete help for these poor souls that suffer from this terrible affliction? Let’s not just abandon them but help them to find their true humanity and to encourage them to pursue their career objectives elsewhere. An answer from you, Sir, would be appreciated.

    • Dr. Coelho,
      You’re correct!! In fact, it’s important for all Catholics to be praying and fasting each week for their bishop and pastor.

      These times demand it.

  3. According to one news source this “reform” simply reiterates the proposals of Cupich and Wuerl (both guilty of covering up sexual abuse) that the Bishops police themselves. It’s doomed to failure. The only way to cleanse the Church of this filth is for the state to get involved. Ceasar must intervene, as is happening in the United States.

  4. It will not work.
    The bishops will continue to act like a mob as they report to the Capo di tutti capi in Rome.
    For example, McCarrick. He is no longer a priest. But McCarrick (not a poor man) is kept comfortable at his hideout at the friary in Victoria, KS on the dime of the pewsitters in WDC . The bishops know this and approve it.
    One more kick in the groin to the faithful by the Church.

  5. Pope Francis seems to be constantly running from the cause, which is overwhelmingly ‘gay predation’. His new law does not address that at all. Some even perceive that as ‘cover up’… i think they have a point. No Pope should be ‘chicken’ to proclaim the truth in and out of season, especially when tens of thousands of victims are very real.

  6. “The Church’s solutions to the problem of abuse aren’t resolved from one day to another. A process has begun. Yesterday another document came out, and so slowly we are carrying out a process. Because twenty years ago until now we weren’t aware. Now we are becoming aware, with great shame — but blessed shame — shame is a grace of God. But it’s a process. And we have to go forward, forward, in a process step by step by step to resolve this problem. Some of the anti-abuse organizations weren’t happy with the meeting in February. ‘But, they didn’t do anything,’ they say. I understand, there is interior suffering. If we had hanged 100 abuser priests in St. Peter’s Square, they would have been happy, but the problem would not have been resolved. Problems in life are resolved with processes, not occupying spaces.” -Bergoglio to International Union of Superiors General on Friday (10May2019)/Life Site News

    His characterization of “some of the anti-abuse organizations”… a speculated would-be-pleasing-to-them hanging of “100 abuser priests in St. Peters’s Square?” Are these the words of a man who respects the victims of abuse really? Along with “interior suffering” (he is allegedly so sensitive to) does Bergoglio not get the damage done to the Church itself and why people are abandoning the Catholic Church (which might be fine with him, actually, when you consider his regard for Muslims, non-Catholics and even atheists)?

    Does Bergoglio ever tire of demonizing his critics, bashing with anticipation listening-in faithful Catholics who reference the Church’s Magisterium, and grabbing whatever is handy…even using victims groups to do so? No. And I guess “anti-abuse” is easier to talk about this way than “victim rights” groups or “victims” (with whom he deeply sympathizes with)…is this reference to public hangings truly indicative of who Bergoglio is not just “deep down?” This is pure Peron. Machiavelli.

    In the same breath, while opining how God wills a diversity of religious habits/regular clothing for women religious and how “we’ll give the prize” (is this a man who truly likes and respects actual women vs the “female” Church?)to an Indian style habit of a particular superior, Bergoglio uses his pot shot to “some of the anti-abuse organizations” his straw man characterization of clamoring? for the hanging of 100 abuser priests in St. Peter’s Square…to essentially reference/boast? to this gathering of women religious about his change to the Catechism regarding capital punishment…”now immoral.” Is not the desire for reform itself by the “dummies”? being straw man characterized this way? Ill-advised? Potentially immoral to an extreme? Don’t the “dummies” get it? “Because twenty years ago until now we weren’t aware. Now we are becoming aware.” And yet? How does Bergoglio say this with a straight face except to people he considers “dummies” (they are all “discerning” religious garb, female deacons…he’s worried about climate change, China… “guy stuff”))…people who are free to leave the Church and start a new church…as he said so directly to one German sister superior during that same event…but really he speaking not just to her but anyone else out there who doesn’t like…Bergoglio…not “Catholic.”

    The “Open Letter to the Bishops of the World” aside…has the matter of Bergoglio’s election to the papacy been TRULY settled?

    At what point does conscience apply to this papacy? Or better put…”discernment?” Does “just becoming aware” apply to Bergoglio?

    It’s “now” for me (for awhile)…and with regards to Canon Law…it’s “the supreme law of the Church”…the “salvation of souls.” Leave the Church for me? No. But resistance to this papacy? Yes.

    The secular press indicates how the answer-to-their-prayers Bergoglio does NOT reference contacting the civil authorities. That’s OK. The civil authorities will continue to contact “The Institution” and perhaps eventually Bergoglio himself.

    Civil authorities. Civil law suits. RICO.

  7. I agree with Peter Santos, Paul, Johann and Ranger.The “boys club” will allow no changes. Bishops checking on bishops will do no good. In my diocese ( an archdiocese) the bishop is tolerant of priests acting out with adult men and women. Any priest who is critical would find himself in the gulag, if not dismissed or have accusations brought against him. They laity would be ignored and marginalized. We are running around in circles. I am all for praying, but it would be nice to see some concrete effects of all these prayers.

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