What’s (not) in Pope Francis’s new accountability measures

For all the talk about what is in the new law aimed at the abuse scandal, most critical attention has focused on something that was conspicuously absent from it.

Pope Francis smiles as he arrives to address more than 1,000 diocesan leaders, both clergy and laity, May 9, 2019, at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)

We spent most of Thursday learning what is in the new law, Vos estis lux mundi, after Pope Francis presented it to the public ahead of June 1st, the date on which is slated to take effect. The law establishes reporting guidelines and accountability measures — primarily for bishops — in the wake of worldwide outcry, ongoing scandal, and persistent crisis in the whole Church. You can read about what’s in the new law here and here.

For all the talk about what is in the new law, most critical attention has focused on something that was conspicuously absent from it: real, responsible lay involvement.

The reform legislation allows bishops to include qualified lay persons on the lists of those to whom they may turn for assistance in conducting investigations, but there is no mandate for lay cooperation in receiving and evaluating reports, much less for responsible lay involvement in the review of complaints.

If the root cause of the crisis in which the Church is currently steeped is power — cupidity for it — then finding a way to share power with the laity, which does not compromise the integrity of the Church’s divinely constituted hierarchical structure, is the first, last, and paramount object of any reform worth the name.

A few analysts believe the new system allows local Ordinaries to supply that deficiency, and for metropolitans and national or regional conferences to fill those lacunae in their jurisdictions. That may be. The US bishops will certainly have a chance to do so in their June meeting. Without the responsible involvement of lay persons in stable accountability organs, it will be difficult — practically impossible — for the new arrangements to build any kind of credibility.

The reason for this is perhaps aptly illustrated by a remark attributed to the great Roman general, Gnaeus Pompey, who had laid siege to Messina, and demanded a parley with the city fathers. The citizenry demurred, citing a Roman law of very ancient standing, which forbade their entering into such or similar negotiations. “Do not quote laws to men who carry swords,” Pompey famously quipped. With regard to current intra-ecclesial circumstances, one might as readily say: “Do not quote laws to the men, who have made them — and are solely responsible for interpreting and enforcing them.”

Never satisfied with easy undertakings, civil investigators enforce the laws of their civil jurisdictions, which in the present disposition both the Church and Churchmen are bound to respect. If the makers, interpreters, and enforcers of this new law would avoid further unpleasant acquaintance with those men, they must prove their earnest.

The new law is extremely articulate, even meticulous. It is also very official. We hear about what is supposed to happen when a report is received, but we are told little about how the new mechanisms are to receive reports. One would like to think, for example, that a reporter sending to the wrong office or using the wrong form, will get a better answer than Fr. Boniface Ramsey got from Cardinal O’Malley, but we are decades past the day in which apologies and promises to do better next time might serve as any sort of foundation for reasonable hope.

In this vein, one also thinks of the Zanchetta Affair. The Holy See apparently knew there were allegations against Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta involving serious moral ambiguities of behavior as early as 2015. Pope Francis was reportedly informed personally and involved directly in the matter. In the meantime, Pope Francis let Zanchetta resign his see in Argentina and established him behind a desk in the powerful Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See.

The Press Office denied receiving any “report” of sexual abuse until the fall of 2018. There was apparently no official complaint filed against Zanchetta until November 2018. That may be enough to save the Holy See from a charge of mendacity, but such careful parsing of terms is unlikely to satisfy anyone looking for real responsiveness and serious commitment to action. If these new measures are to be effective, such terminological gymnastics and bureaucratic punctiliousness cannot be the order of the day, or even minimally tolerated.

There is an ex officio proviso, which could apply to notorious facts, but then again, might not.

Vos estis does not impose silence on reporters. In fact, the new law explicitly states, “An obligation to keep silent may not be imposed on any person with regard to the contents of his or her report.” Nevertheless, it has no requirement for the communication of findings to reporters or victims at the end of an investigation, let alone for the progress of eventual legal proceedings or the verdict at the end of those. The law says, “In compliance with the instructions of the competent Dicastery, the Metropolitan, upon request, shall inform the person who has alleged an offence, or his/her legal representatives, of the outcome of the investigation.” That omission is in marked contrast to the reform law recently promulgated for Vatican City with regard to the protection of minors and vulnerable persons.

The reporting that is required is intra-ecclesial. Clerics and religious are the only ones strictly required to report abuse or coverup or their suspicions regarding those same, and those required are to report to higher ecclesiastical authority. The reform law does call on reporters to comply with reporting law in civil jurisdictions that have them, but the system itself is designed by Churchmen for Church leadership.

Local law and circumstance may mean that no secular criminal laws were violated, or that the crimes being reported are not prosecutable. Still, there’s only one way to find out, and that way opens with a police report.

Another way to keep those in power responsible is to go to the press. As Valentina Alazraki put it in her address to participants in the child protection meeting in February at the Vatican:

If you are against those who commit or cover up abuse, then we are on the same side. We can be allies, not enemies. We will help you to find the rotten apples and to overcome resistance in order to separate them from the healthy ones.

“Transparency,” explained Archbishop Scicluna to Vatican News on the sidelines of the press briefing Thursday, “comes from empowering people to disclose crime, but also engaging people in investigating crime.” He went on to say, “It’s about transparency, but also about accountability.” The law is silent, however, on what happens when things do not work as they ought, whatever that is supposed to look like.

The Vatican’s mouthpieces touted Vos estis as a strong message and a clear signal that business as usual is closed, and a new chapter opened. They also stress the point that the reform law provides a procedural framework adaptable to regional and local circumstance, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. That it is so, and not another exercise in smoke and mirrors, must become clear in short order. Otherwise, the business will reveal itself to be a Lampedusan rearrangement of everything: Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi  “If we desire that everything remain the same, it is necessary that everything change.” The whole thing needs to be tried out, and soon.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 221 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. If Pope Francis is right about clericalism being the cause of the abuse crisis, then lay involvement would be instrumental for the solution? But the Pope still locks out the laity in evaluating reports.

    This makes me think that Francis wasn’t truthful about the cause. Or, he was truthful but isn’t serious about the solution. Either way, Satan gets to take another whack at the Church.

    More prayer and fasting is needed to protect the Church from the Evil One.

  2. As with most things involving Pope Francis, there is cognitive dissonance. He talks a wonderful line about dialogue, openness, accompanyment and all of the rest of the Bergoglio buzz words and blather. On the other hand, official policies appear anything but dialogical or inclusive. Interested in being thoroughly confused? Follow the Bergoglio maze, a theological labyrinth. We need a new Theseus to lead us out.

  3. “If the root cause of the crisis in which the Church is currently steeped is power — cupidity for it — then finding a way to share power with the laity”

    The problem is that many of the laity who are eager to be involved is because they, too, are steeped in cupidity for power. I don’t see giving it to them as an improvement.

    • I really butchered that sentence, didn’t I!

      I’ll try again.

      The problem is that many of the laity who are eager to be involved are eager because they, too, are steeped in cupidity for power. I don’t see giving it to them as an improvement.

      • Leslie,
        I share your frustration with typos. One of my sentences (above) has a question mark when it should have a period.

        I agree with you overall, but not in regard to the oversight of clerical conduct. In this regard, bishops have demonstrated in spades that they’re unable to make good decisions.

  4. Pope Francis is the King of Clericalism, and so there is no significant change, because men like Francis and Cupich and their mentor McCarrick have contempt and real fear of serious Catholic laity.

    Serious Catholic men and women, of vast experience in governance and law, such as Governor Frank Keating and Judge Anne Burke, have publicly exposed the utter contempt and corruption of the power-playing Cardinals of ruling in the US. And they publicly resigned from the 2002-04 “US Sex Abuse Inquiry” (Keating) and the Knights of Malta (Burke) and warned us that we could not and ought not trust the Cardinals and bishops of the “Cult of Contempt,” and this cult includes numerous Cardinals and Bishops in the US who are allied with the sex abuse coverup artists who remain in absolute power in the US Church, because Bergoglio has ensured these wicked men remain in power: Mahony the grand coverup cultist condemned by Governor Keating (Mahony, even though “retired,” was invited to the November 2018 USCCB Sex Abuse Conference to threaten the assembled Bishops); Cupich; Wuerl (the arch liar and coverup Cardinal used by Francis to control the ADW and the USCCB); Tobin of Newark; etc etc etc.

    These men, including Bergoglio/Francis, do not deserve trust, and they will die in office untrusted.

  5. The point to remember is that, for the first time in history, the pope has participated in an elaborate cover up designed to obscure the fact that his papacy promotes homosexuality in the priesthood. The mccarrick affair revealed that many bishops are homosexual and corrupt to the core. So the homosexually oriented papacy of Francis had to cover this up. They did so by pretending it was all about child abuse. So shameful for a pope to participate in a massive cover up like this.

  6. When we address the Holy Father we speak of addressing the office, not the person holding the office. This is an important distinction as we know from history that holiness is not a mold that fits all, even popes. Be that as it may, the Holy Father is most adroit with ambiguities and double-speak. We must never cease praying for him and the life of Holy Mother Church.

  7. A church hierarchy which plays fast and loose with doctrine and dogma, obviously has no compunction about obfuscating when dealing with reform which would strip them of control. That anyone is surprised that his Holiness only pays lip service to ending abuse at the highest levels of the clergy is astounding. This administration has refused to answer any questions, refutes substantiated accusations of enabling and protecting those who have abused believers and destroyed the faith of millions.

    The definition of madness is to continue to do the same thing expecting different results. I would say that most conservative Catholics are technically insane. They keep hoping that somehow, this time, his Holiness will do something that is forthright and honest. It will not happen. Not during this pontificate, probably not in the next. The road has been clearly marked. Utter meaningless pious bromides, do what is politically expedient, sow dissent and confusion among the few faithful left and court the support of powerful, rich, secular allies.

    What the Vatican has discovered is they don’t need filled pews and pennies in the collection box. Better to have the support of the media, the money of the rich and the adulation of those who want forgiveness without repentance and assurance of heaven without effort. For prosperity in this world it is a winning combination.

  8. I’m starting to feel like Sandro Magister’s Man In Havana. Quip aside the following is reason why like author Altieri and respondents I seriously question the Vatican plan Vox estis lux mundi. For one there is convincing indication that it requires competent Laity without clerical ties and with direct access to civil law authority [assigning final say to Metropolitans Cardinal Cupich’s idea is indeed blatant clericalism]. “For several months, among the Church’s leadership, homosexuality has been taboo. It was even forbidden to talk about it at the summit on sexual abuse held at the Vatican from February 21 to 24. And yet its widespread presence among the clergy and in the seminaries has been a well-known reality for some time, to the point that in 2005 the congregation for Catholic education issued an instruction precisely on how to address it. But in reality to what extent were they applied? The survey cited above was deliberately set up to verify what is happening today in two seminaries in Brazil, taken as a sample. The authors of the survey, Elismar Alves dos Santos and Pedrinho Arcides Guareschi, both religious of the congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer and both specialists in social psychology and with prestigious academic qualifications, conducted in-depth interviews with 50 theology students of these seminaries, coming away from them with results that are decidedly alarming. First of all, the interviewees say, homosexuality in their seminaries ‘is a common thing, a reality ever more present.’ So normal ‘that it even reaches the point of being trivialized.’ It is the widespread conviction among them ‘that in reality 90 percent of seminarians today are homosexual.’ Some homosexuals – they say – “seek the seminary as a means of escape so as not to take on before their families and society the responsibilities connected to their behavior.” Others ‘discover that they are homosexual when they are already in the seminary,’ finding a favorable environment there. And almost all of them, some say 80 percent ‘go in search of sexual partners.’ Homosexuality, in fact – they state – ‘is a reality present in the seminaries not only in the order of being, but also in the order of practice.’ Many practice it ‘as if it were something normal’” (Magister 5.13.19). If the Pontiff’s maneuvering throughout this major crisis is any indication this plan would be the vehicle for cementing homosexuality within the Church while appearing to eliminate it.

    • The most serious omission in Vos estis lux mundi, in this Pontificate is the refusal to condemn the sacrilege of consensual homosexual relations among clergy. A moral crime that is condoned by civil criminal law that can only be addressed by the Church in particular the Roman Pontiff. The opposite has occurred the sacrilegious affront to God and Man reinforced. Only the faithful Hierarchy can confront the Pontiff and demand action. Otherwise we await the inevitable wrath of God.

  9. Transparency and reporting–ah, yes. Oh, wait, when is that report on McCarrick coming out of the Vatican? Oh, what report? How about Zanchetta? Oh, what are you talking about? And, so, on it goes. Lots of talk and little action.

  10. Change is always fearful, the church has been in transformation since coming in power of Papal Francis. Just tip of an ice berg-the Bank of holy sea went massive transformation revealing shameful wrongdoing by servants of God there and the work goes on in other areas! Let the Papal do his job and gets prepare ourselves-both laity and clergy s to support the Papal.

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