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Vos Estis Lux Mundi, the new papal directive for handling sex abuse charges, takes a few steps toward reform within the Catholic Church. But the papal document—a motu proprio, carrying the force of canon law—falls well short of an adequate response to a burgeoning scandal.

Pope Francis’s directive requires that every Catholic diocese and eparchy provide a formal system for reporting and addressing abuse complaints. For Americans, already living under the “Dallas Charter” mechanisms set up more than a decade ago, the new rule will have no major practical effect. But in other countries, where whistle-blowers still face strong resistance, it is an important advance.

The motu proprio also insists that abuse victims, and others lodging complaints, must be treated with respect and compassion and given the spiritual and material help they need. Too often, even after winning lawsuits, victims have been handed a check—without an apology—and sent on their way.

Best of all, Vos Estis recognizes that a cover-up compounds a crime. In fact, for the purposes of canon law, a cover-up of abuse charges now is a crime, and a complaint about a cover-up must be treated like a complaint about sexual abuse. Here, too, is a significant step in the right direction.

However, the bulk of the papal document addresses a specialized question: How should Church officials respond to charges of misconduct lodged against a bishop? Here the pope fails to address the fundamental challenge to the credibility of the Catholic hierarchy. The new policies were obviously drawn up in response to the worldwide scandal that erupted last year with the revelations of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s chronic sexual misconduct. So perhaps the best way to illustrate their deficiencies would be to imagine how things might have developed if these policies had been in place in the late 1990s, when rumors of McCarrick’s sexual escapades began to circulate.

Under the new system, a complaint against a bishop should be brought to the attention of the metropolitan archbishop in the region. But McCarrick was the metropolitan archbishop—first in Newark, then in Washington, D.C. In such a case, the new policy stipulates that the complaint should be sent to the Holy See. But reports about McCarrick were conveyed to the Vatican, and for years nothing happened. Later, when McCarrick retired, complaints might have been made to his successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl. But again, Wuerl was informed.

The sad history of the McCarrick scandal demonstrates that policies are only as reliable as the officials who enforce them. If Catholics have lost confidence in their bishops, the procedures set forth in Vos Estis will not reassure them.

Vos Estis requires that abuse charges must be investigated thoroughly. But the document does not say what penalties should be imposed if the charges are confirmed. Notice that when Pope Benedict XVI finally took disciplinary action against McCarrick, the penalty was mild; already retired, McCarrick was asked to withdraw from public life. More to the point, the ecclesiastical sanction was generally ignored—both by McCarrick, who continued to maintain a high public profile, and by his friends at the Vatican—and eventually overturned by Pope Francis. Moreover, the penalty was imposed secretly, so that McCarrick’s punishment (such as it was) could not have deterred other prelates from misconduct. Were it not for the dramatic testimony of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal representative in Washington, we would not know that any sanction had ever been imposed.

To be fair, the stories that circulated in the 1990s about McCarrick did not involve abuse of children; he was widely known for his dalliances with seminarians, most of them legal adults. Vos Estis recognizes that a sexual relationship between an archbishop and a seminarian is inherently abusive. But the document ignores the broader questions about homosexual affairs with consenting adults: affairs that may not be abusive, but are certainly instances of grave misconduct for clerics, and fodder for scandal.

In short, the motu proprio institutes different procedures, but does not guarantee different results. To restore confidence, the Vatican must show a willingness to identify not only the prelates who have sinned, but also the officials who have protected them. Once again it is significant that Vos Estis, written in response to the McCarrick scandal, says not a word in response to the clamoring for an account of how a corrupt prelate advanced through the hierarchy and prospered despite his known misconduct.

If the testimony of Archbishop Viganò is accurate, then many Vatican officials knew of, and failed to act on, the charges against McCarrick. All those officials—including Pope Francis himself—would be subject to investigation under the terms of the new motu proprio. But if any such investigation has been made, we have not heard about it. So the crisis of credibility continues.  

Philip Lawler is editor of Catholic World News and author of The Smoke of Satan.

Photo by Gilbert Sopakuwa via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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