Good points and bad in new Vatican sex-abuse guidelines

The new canonical norms for the handling of sex-abuse complaints, issued by Pope Francis last week, resolve some of the problems that have contributed to the scandal. Other important problems, unfortunately, remain unresolved.

The bulk of motu proprio, Vos Estis Lux Mundi, is appropriately addressed to the responsibilities of bishops in handling sex-abuse charges. Pope Francis recognizes that by ignoring complaints and even covering up evidence of clerical misconduct, bishops have exponentially increased the damage done to the credibility of the Church. Now, the Pope has ruled, a cover-up should itself be treated as a crime. For most purposes, in fact, the motu proprio provides that a reported cover-up will be treated in just the same way as a reported instance of sexual abuse.

For the first time, the new Vatican policy requires dioceses to provide both spiritual and material care for the victims of sexual abuse. Although the motu proprio does not spell out what sort of care should be expected, the document is an implicit recognition that dioceses have paid little attention to victims— even, in many American cases, after making enormous financial payments to settle lawsuits.

The document also closes a gaping loophole in existing Church policies, providing a system for the reporting of complaints lodged against the bishops themselves. The absence of such a system, exposed most dramatically last year with the revelations of abuse by former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, had contributed to the spread of cynicism about the Church’s response.

The new policy gives metropolitan archbishops the primary responsibility for investigating charges against diocesan bishops in their regions. This procedure shows the influence of Cardinal Blase Cupich, who had suggested expanding the roles of metropolitan archbishops rather than establishing an independent commission to investigate bishops charged with misconduct.

However, the new policy does not define the disciplinary action that would be taken against bishops who are found guilty of misconduct (including, under the new rules, the misconduct involved in covering up abuse). The new policies require an investigation, conducted under the auspices of the Holy See, with a report eventually being made to the relevant Vatican dicastery. But the papal document does not indicate what sort of punishments might be imposed on offenders.

Nor do the new norms address the lack of transparency that has characterized— and could continue to characterize— the Vatican’s investigations of episcopal misconduct. While the papal document requires the Vatican to investigate charges and take appropriate action, there is no provision for any public explanation of the disciplinary action.

Still more important, the new rules are not retroactive. The canonical norms set forth today take effect on June 1. They do not apply, therefore, to past cover-ups, and do not promise concerned Catholics any further information about how Theodore McCarrick rose to power, and retained power, despite the reports of his sexual misconduct.

If the new rules had been in effect a few years ago, they would have required Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano to make his report about the charges against McCarrick, and to name the Vatican officials who had been involved in promoting McCarrick’s high-profile status. The new norms would not have led to the public release of the Vigano report, however. So the questions that Archbishop Vigano raised remain unanswered, and under the new system they might not even be asked.

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