Vatican City, May 9, 2019 / 10:04 am
Pope Francis, the “pope of surprises,” lived up to his nickname this morning, by releasing a comprehensive canonical plan to address the investigation of bishops accused of sexual abuse or coercion, or of interfering in investigation of such conduct.
The document, Vos estis lux mundi, is a serious shift in the way clerical sexual misconduct, and claims of episcopal negligence, will be handled. But some sections, especially regarding the role of laity, will raise questions among U.S. Catholics.
It was released one month before the U.S. bishops’ conference is scheduled to meet in Baltimore for a meeting largely focused on clerical sexual abuse and episcopal misconduct. Its publication will significantly reshape that meeting. With that in mind, several bishops told CNA they are glad the surprise came before their meeting got started, instead of during the meeting, as did news during their November 2018 meeting that bishops could not vote on their own proposals to address episcopal misconduct.
The document establishes that a broad swath of sexual acts committed by clerics with adults are potentially canonical crimes, and should be treated as such, if they involve “abuses of authority” or “vulnerable persons,” a term it defines to broadly include those who are limited in “their ability to understand or to want or to otherwise resist the offense.”
This is a meaningful development of the Church’s law, which has not previously recognized explicitly that implied coercion, abuse of authority, and imbalances of power can render seemingly consensual sexual acts as crimes.
It also sets out a clear procedure for investigating bishops accused of either implicitly or explicitly coercing someone to engage in sexual activity, abusing vulnerable persons, or possessing child pornography.
Notably, the document also applies to bishops accused of interfering with or avoiding criminal and canonical investigations of sexual abuse or coercion. And it clarifies that compliance with civil law is a normative expectation for bishops, and that failing to do so could lead to censure. This far exceeds the prevailing cultural paradigm in many parts of the world, but it is in line with what Pope Francis has said about cooperation with civil authorities for years.
The document clarifies that priests and religious are canonically obliged to report their knowledge of episcopal abuse and misconduct, and that episcopal conferences should establish a reporting mechanism that can be used by anyone. It says that whistleblowers should not be punished, and emphasizes the care due to victims of clerical sexual coercion, and their families. Importantly, it establishes timetables and deadlines for each stage of the process.