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 “Do not quote laws to men who carry swords,” Pompey famously quipped. With regard to current intra-ecclesial circumstances, one might as readily say: “Do not quote laws to the men, who have made them — and are solely responsible for interpreting and enforcing them.”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.
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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