Pope Francis’ new sex abuse rules are a revolution for the Catholic Church

Pope Francis gestures as he addresses over 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)

With his new motu proprioVos estis lux mundi,” Pope Francis shows that he is taking the abuse crisis very seriously. The new legislation came only months after the February 2019 abuse summit in Rome. The time and tone of the new law are revolutionary, yet the law is solidly grounded in tradition.

This new law is without a doubt a rare gift to the entire church and sets, along with the companion Vatican law providing for jail time for any public official of the Vatican who fails to report abuse, an unmistakable new course. The painful, sometimes bitter, experience of the church in the United States and the voices of the faithful worldwide have helped bring about a change in attitude and a change in law. There is no turning back now, and the tone has been set for the future.

Advertisement

Before looking at the new legislation, it is important to underscore that this new law is a procedural law, setting up a solid reporting system. The law does not establish new penalties. The penalties are applied after using this new procedure.

The painful experience of the U.S. church and the voices of the faithful worldwide have helped bring about a change in attitude and a change in law.

The new law focuses on three main points: mandatory reporting, the institution of the metropolitan model to investigate bishops and others who are in positions of authority, and the obligation to establish in every diocese and eparchy a stable and easily accessible system to report abuse and cover-up.

The new law actively encourages and promotes reporting of abuse committed by clerics and members of religious orders. The sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults, the possession or distribution of child pornography, the use of violence or intimidation to engage in sexual acts and the cover-up of such conduct are subject to the reporting requirement. The legislation recognizes the fact that abuse problems have existed not just among clerics under the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith but also in religious institutes. The new law offers whistle-blower protections for all reporters. That is simply revolutionary in canon law and guarantees that a victim who wishes to tell his or her story cannot be silenced.

The second major point of the legislation is the establishment of the metropolitan system to report abuse or cover-up by cardinals, patriarchs, bishops, papal legates and supreme moderators. The motu proprio requires that complaints get to Rome quickly and that investigations start within 30 days. The metropolitan approach preserves the universality of the church and the central role of the Holy Father but ensures that local church resources are relied upon to ascertain the truth. This also includes the potential involvement of qualified lay people to assist the metropolitan with the investigation. In fact, the legislation explicitly invokes Canon 228, which is rooted in Vatican II’s recognition of the critical role lay people can play. Because of the nature of sexual abuse crimes, lay people must now have a critical and central role in investigating cardinals, patriarchs, bishops, legates and supreme moderators. One of the extraordinary things about this new law is that if it is badly executed by the bishop responsible for the investigation, the bishop could find himself investigated for cover-up as well.

“Vos estis lux mundi” is a critical step forward in protecting all victims from the scourge of sexual abuse.

The obligation to establish in every diocese and eparchy a stable and easily accessible system to report abuse is the third major point of the new legislation. It offers a clear reporting mechanism to denounce abuse or cover-up by bishops and those targeted by the motu proprio.

In the preamble to “Vos estis lux mundi,” Pope Francis writes, “It is good that procedures be universally adopted to prevent and combat these crimes that betray the trust of the faithful.” A universal procedural law is indeed the appropriate answer. The pope also reminds us that we must not treat this as merely a technical positive law but that instead this must be accompanied by an ecclesial spirit, common purpose and conversion. The legislation needs to be implemented locally and in full, including in the United States.

There is no room to use the abuse crisis for ideological purposes. Some have argued that gay priests caused the abuse crisis and that therefore the crisis was limited to the church in the West. The promulgation of a universal law shows that the abuse crisis is not simply an American problem but concerns the whole Catholic Church. It is a problem of abuse of power, one that includes the abuse of girls, women and female religious. “Vos estis lux mundi” is a critical step forward in protecting all victims from the scourge of sexual abuse, not only in the United States but throughout the universal church.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J. Calpezzo
2 months 1 week ago

Is this some kind of a joke?

Danny Collins
2 months 1 week ago

Apparently so. But would you expect a truthful take rather than a joke of a story on this? What do people expect from a magazine that knew about McCarrick and covered for him for so many years?

Francis refuses to hold any of the bishops accountable who covered up the abuse for decades, preferring to install the serial abuser McCarricks room-mate of many years as camerlengo. America Magazine knew about McCarrick. Cardinal Farrell knew about McCarrick. Wuerl knew about McCarrick. Nobody who aided and abetted McCarrick during his years of serial abuse is being called to account, but the author of this article wants us to believe that the Vatican is serious about cleaning house?

It's too bad the Jesuit Review has fallen so far in journalistic standards as to make itself a laughingstock to people who want to bring real accountability to the church and rid it of the filth that clings like fleas on a mangy dog.

Mark M
2 months 1 week ago

Yup, those Jesuit jokesters.
HaHaHaHaHa, you ignorant pewsitters! The bishops get to police themselves.
RICO is the only thing they will understand. RICO can’t come soon enough.
Start with the archdiocese of Newark, Detroit, Chicago and Buffalo.

Dr Robert Dyson
2 months 1 week ago

The evident prompt is that we should now welcome this 'revolutionary' development as a marvellous gift and be suitably grateful to the pope for bestowing it. Forgive me if I make the obvious point: that if the church was what it should be, and has always claimed to be - 'without spot or blemish' - and if the clergy were what they should be, such a 'law' would never have been necessary. Sometimes the only way to make something right is not to do it in the first place. This is pre-eminently true of the sex abuse crisis. Let us not rejoice that this band-aid expedient has come into being; let us rather mourn the fact that it was ever necessary.

arthur mccaffrey
2 months 1 week ago

right on doc! if this is a revolution, I have seen glaciers move faster. Such elaborate preening and prancing to make sure that the new procedures do not trample on anybody's toes. What about the victims? Maybe what wimpy Francis needs is a blood transfusion from Trump. Let a few heads roll, and a few cardinals go to jail, and he could save himself a lot of paperwork. And as for his concern about Global Warming, how about shutting down all the hot air coming out of the Vatican, for a start?

Will Nier
2 months 1 week ago

But Doc we are dealing with man in his fallen nature. Cleric or not sin is always present for they are not Saints.

Dr Robert Dyson
2 months 1 week ago

"Cleric or not sin is always present for they are not Saints."

You don't have to be a saint to know that it's wrong to abuse children; just an ordinarily decent human being.

Michael Sheridan
2 months 1 week ago

You are right, it is wrong to abuse children. Too many sexually, psychologically immature individuals entered Seminaries and Religious Houses and went on to be ordained or took Final Vows. I think some of them went through the motions but forgot God.

George Obregon
2 months 1 week ago

It's a revolution in thinking for many, who now understand that sexual promiscuity of the Catholic chain-of-command dates from very early times in the Church.
/geo ex machina
`

Paula Swain
2 months 1 week ago

This is too little way too late. I am not applauding Pope Francis or any other clergy for doing the right thing. As my parents used to say to me when I wanted praise for a good grade: “What? You want a medal for doing your job as you are required?” All confirmed or suspected abusers should be turned into the appropriate legal authorities in their municipality. Tell the clergy AFTER reporting to the police. No other way to avoid the continuing cover-ups being perpetrated by the clergy all the way up through the Vatican.

Jean Miller
2 months 1 week ago

More cops and robbers---but nothing re the fundamental cultural changes needed to address the systemic disease inherent in this church: Clericalism.

Richard DiLallo DiLallo
2 months 1 week ago

I agree with previous commenters who are, like me, astonished at the arrogance and stupidity and insensitivity of the Church. Boys and girls, men and women, have been raped, abused, demeaned. The laws -- both moral and civil -- have been broken beyond all decent comprehension. And the Church and its Pope and its hierarchy act as if they've done something great here. Moreover, the editorializing -- "setting up a solid reporting system," "the bishop could find himself investigated for cover-up as well" -- of America Magazine and Mr. Martens is equally reprehensible. "There's no looking back now." Tell the victims. Tell the cops. Tell the judge.

Arthur Sullivan
2 months 1 week ago

I'm so sorry, but the only answer here is the International Criminal Court.

david_roccosalva@yahoo.com
2 months 1 week ago

I'm not sure "revolution" is the right word. "revolting" seems a better fit. clergy policing clergy - what can possibly go wrong?

John Mack
2 months 1 week ago

imposing a moral standard that any decent pagan practices on the Catholic clergy is hardly a revolution, except in the myopic view of a canon lawyer. Recognizing that innocent children have moral rights equal to or superior to priests is hardly revolutionary, except to Catholic bureaucrats. And using a top down authoritarian approach is hardly revolutionary. Call it reform, please, at best. Stop with the melodrama of "revolution."

Will Nier
2 months 1 week ago

One problem is that reporting is only to Church authorities. Not local law officials. While I can understand that all Countries have different laws that would apply to this and some Countries where Catholic Church is in the minority and persecution could result something has to be done to alert secular law officials. I know as a teacher I had to report to the police anything that I felt was in the area of sexual abuse. As the Church works through all this new territory I hope this method of reporting sexual abuse will be dealt with in a more profound way. I do find another problem. What about a priest who confesses to another priest ( within the sacrament of confession) that they committed a sexual act against a child? What then? I know this new regulation partially addresses that but maybe the whole thing will be hidden within the sacrament rather than risk being reported for suspected abuse.

Maria Alderson
2 months 1 week ago

No other institution has made such sweeping reforms. Not the Boy Scouts, not the Public Schools, not other churches, not the bus drivers' union if there is one. But you haters are never satisfied.

lurline jennings
2 months 1 week ago

Thank you. The RC Church is not the only group who has sinners amongst them. We are human beings, all of us, searching for answers and solutions. Pray for all the priests at all levels who have dedicated their lives to serve God and all His creation.

Paula Swain
2 months 1 week ago

“Sweeping changes”? CHILDREN have been and ARE being raped and abused by CATHOLIC PRIESTS. THIS HAS BEEN GOING ON FOR DECADES. So FINALLY the Pope admits that it is happening and says it should be reported. But not to the police, no, report to the clergy: THE VERY SAME CLERGY WHO HAVE BEEN COVERING THIS UP. Oh, and no lay people will be involved in this. Please look at this in terms of your own child being RAPED AND ABUSED by a teacher. Would you be “satisfied” with an internal investigation at the school where it happened with no police investigation, no trial, no jail time? Why do you want the victims of SEXUAL ABUSE PERPETRATED BY CLERGY to be “satisfied” by this reporting “revolution” proposed by Pope Francis? It is a “nothing burger”.

THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
2 months 1 week ago

"Nothing burger," what an apt description.

arthur mccaffrey
2 months 1 week ago

you should be ashamed of yourself for trotting out that old Catholic chestnut apologia--'oh look every body, we are no worse than everybody else'....is that the standard you hold the UNIVERSAL church to? Are victims "haters" for wanting their church to set an example, not follow other criminals? Why don't you crawl under that rug that you sweep all these problems under?

Larraine Pratt
2 months 1 week ago

This article would have been fine if the author hadn't completely missed the point: we are only in this mess because the Church has been accountable only to itself. In principle this should work, but as a consequence of modernism, a homosexual network which promotes itself exclusively, (no I am not homophobic, or a hater), cowardice, lack of faith among the clergy, and a lack of love for the sheep, it doesn't. This makes America Magazine complicit in this mess. I recommend people listen to James Grein who was abused by McCarrick for many years, has a lot of insight into abuses of power and is a man who truly loves the Church.

Arthur Sullivan
2 months 1 week ago

This whole mess belongs in the International Criminal Court.

Mark M
2 months 1 week ago

Two years ago I would have disagreed. Now....Hmmmm.

THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
2 months 1 week ago

Mr. Martens do you seriously think that the Pope is taking the sex abuse scandal seriously? After all of his cover-ups and passes on abusers he needs to resign. The only point missing from the motu propio that should not be there is the omission of mandatory reporting to the police. In some countries that is an invitation for the police authority to extort the Church, the alleged victim, and the alleged perpetrator - a tri-fecta of graft and greed. However, in this country - the U.S.A. - the states' attorneys-general seem to be taking care of that issue with the investigations by so many of them of the Church's reporting record. As canon law follows the civil and criminal laws of the country in which the Church is operating, unless the law is immoral, the bishops are required to report to law enforcement in this country and most, if not all, of the countries in the EU and the Commonwealth nations.
Please, wake-up Mr. Martens and America Media - the Pope has no credibility. Evidently the remaining Chilean bishops told him that the last time they met with him.

Brian Toale
2 months 1 week ago

A point I believe is central to this issue but often overlooked, is that the hierarchical leadership of this morality based institution has for centuries (first discussed in Church records in the fourth century) been complicit in the enabling and covering up of the sexual abuse of children and we are counting on them to fix it.

Do we really believe that powerful men, with the weight of these acts on their consciences and the fear of being exposed influencing their decisions, are the best candidates to wash away this stain on their Church. These are men who have to be wondering, with each new revelation, if this will be what finally brings them down, personally. How can they be entrusted with seeing a clear path forward out of this crisis while constantly looking back over their shoulders for the approaching accountability they dread.

These are men who strive to be Christ-like, not Christ himself, or even saints (yet). Only a complete and un-redacted exposure of all the Information related to the sexual abuse of children (whether by priests, brothers, sisters, deacons, or lay employees of the Church) to law enforcement authorities, including everything that's been done to protect the Church’s (and by association the individuals in charge) reputation and standing in the community and world, will be cleansing enough for the Church (and it’s leadership) to emerge from this crisis once and for all.

Only then will the piecemeal reforms the Church puts in place, as well intentioned as they may be, coalesce into any meaningful or lasting change. This is surely the message behind the words “We are only as sick as our secrets.” And doesn't the Church itself tells us “Confession is good for the soul.”

sheila gray
2 months 1 week ago

I am a Survivor. And I am thankful that Pope Francis stuck his neck out this way. Many priests and nuns have known about abusers in their communities for years, and they have done nothing. Now they are obligated by the Church they serve to stand up and be heard. It’s very promising, too, because the reports can be made anonymously. These changes can only help victims and survivors. And, Church Officials are required to report cover-ups, as well. In my personal situation the Cover-Up has been just as damaging as the original abuse. More damaging, really, than the abuse itself. Because once I came forward, while I was still in High School, everyone turned on me. I was shunned by everyone. That would not happen now. It’s not perfect, but it’s close enough for me. Soon to be 67, I am hopeful that I will live long enough now to see Justice done for me, my children and my grandchildren.

Maria Alderson
2 months 1 week ago

Thank you Sheila Gray. Your perspective is invaluable.

Michael Sheridan
2 months 1 week ago

It seems that whatever Pope Francis says or does no one is satisfied. Too many Discussion Documents have been shelved down the years. To produce a Motu Proprio so swiftly is to be applauded. Pope Francis does not want praise or anything like it. Pope Francis recognizes, as do most of us that this is a serious problem that brings down shame on the Church. Abuse of any kind cries out for vengeance. I love my Church and I am embarrassed and ashamed at what has happened over the years. I will not and could not leave a Church that I have been a member of for 72 years. If things do not change in the next few years, then we can complain. The Motu Proprio requires matters of abuse to be dealt with within a relatively short framework. It is not intended that any investigations are dealt with by clerics alone. If a complaint of abuse is made it needs to be investigated properly. Only once the veracity of a complained has been satisfied should the Police become involved. Whilst there have been many complaints of abuse that have been proven there have been complaints that have not been proven because there was no truth in any complaint. Victim and Abuser need to be treated carefully. I know of a Priest who was practically broken when three teenage girls in his Parish complained that he had had girlfriends and a boyfriend. The Bishop, incorrectly, moved him and those girls won! He is without a doubt the most Holy Priest I know. The Church must be accountable but it should not be abused as some of the commentators of this article want. I do not agree with everything. I stay and painfully live through it.

Mark M
2 months 1 week ago

Sir,
Please. It is not the Church which is being abused.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Do not mistake emphatic demands for full accountably as abuse.

Maria Alderson
2 months 1 week ago

Thank you Michael Sheridan. Keep the faith.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.]

Advertisement

The latest from america

Catholic leaders and advocates protest the Trump administration’s handling of detained immigrant children during a “Day of Action” on July 18 in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
Being arrested at a U.S. Senate office building, writes William Critchley-Menor, S.J., was an act of sincere resistance to a state that enforces the horrific treatment of children we have seen in immigrant detention centers.
Thousands of Puerto Ricans joined one of the biggest protests ever seen in the U.S. territory, with irate islanders pledging to drive Gov. Ricardo Rossello from office, in San Juan, Puerto Rico on July 22. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)
The bishops said in a statement on July 19: “You, Mr. Governor, bribed and attacked people and groups that participate in our democratic coexistence and therefore cannot continue to exercise your role.”
America StaffJuly 22, 2019
Of course, the train ride was the highlight of his day. But I am hopeful he learned what it means to welcome the stranger.
Kerry WeberJuly 22, 2019
It is worth taking a closer look at the role of compassion and empathy in journalism, Richard G. Jones writes.
Richard G. JonesJuly 22, 2019