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.

The scope of the document is broad, and to many of those who have reviewed it, its message is clear: the pope intends to convey that the Vatican will take seriously the concerns raised by U.S. bishops since the Theodore McCarrick scandal became public last June.

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In fact, the procedures set forth in the document are similar to the so-called "metropolitan model" for addressing episcopal misconduct proposed by Cardinal Blase Cupich at the November meeting of the U.S. bishops' conference. That model received support from a broad swath of bishops, among them Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, and an iteration of the proposal, albeit with some considerable modifications, was expected to be voted upon, and likely passed, by the U.S. bishops next month.

The norms introduced by Pope Francis deviate from the metropolitan model in one significant way: they do not involve lay review boards at any level.

The plan Cupich proposed suggested that "metropolitans," - archbishops leading archdioceses -  would be responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct made against their "suffragans," - the other diocesan and auxiliary bishops within their "metropolitan province." The investigations of metropolitans, along with reports called vota, would be sent to appropriate Vatican offices for formal adjudication and a resolution.

But the metropolitan plan also held that archbishops would establish lay review boards, comprised of experts in criminal investigation, law enforcement, psychology, management, and other relevant disciplines. Those experts would generally be expected not to be employed by dioceses, in order to assure a measure of independence. The review boards would advise metropolitans and make recommendations to them. They were intended to serve as instruments of lay involvement and accountability.  

The norms released by Pope Francis do not include lay review boards or similar mechanisms of independent lay involvement.

Vos estis lux mundi does say that metropolitans may appoint "qualified persons" to assist them in investigations. But it does not offer specifics about the role of such "qualified persons," call for them to have some independence from bishops, or require their involvement.

The involvement of lay canonists or other ecclesiastical figures employed by dioceses seems unlikely to represent the kind of lay involvement that U.S. Catholics, including bishops, have been calling for.

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In short, while the norms of Vos estis lux mundi represent to many a concrete step forward, they do not require any measure of independent lay involvement or transparency. Those who have expressed concerns about clericalism's impact on the sexual abuse crisis are likely to note that the process introduced by Pope Francis can be carried out entirely by clerics.

There has been some discussion among bishops about the possibility that metropolitan review boards might issue periodic public reports regarding how many investigations they undertook, and a general summary of the results of those investigations, in a manner similar to the reports issued annually concerning investigations of clerical sexual misconduct involving children. But Vos estis lux mundi makes no mention of any such reports.

A Q-and-A released by the U.S. bishops' conference May 9 says that Vos estis lux mundi "increases transparency by establishing clear procedures that must be followed, reaffirming the obligation to report to civil authorities, providing for lay involvement in internal investigations, protecting from possible conflicts of interest, and ensuring that those who report complaints to the Church are also free to report the same information to others and are protected from retaliation."

Whether that "increase" in transparency is enough for lay people, priests, and bishops concerned about clericalism remains to be seen. The absence of lay review boards at the metropolitan level may provoke significant pushback against the document in advance of the U.S. bishops' meeting in Baltimore next month.

Vos estis lux mundi changes significantly the agenda for that meeting. The bishops are expected still to vote on guidelines for dealing with bishops removed from office because of misconduct or negligence, and on the "code of conduct" they discussed at the last meeting. But the centerpiece of their plan to address the abuse crisis, voting on a modified version of the "metropolitan model," is now irrelevant, as Vox estis lux mundi supersedes whatever plan they might have passed.

If there is criticism of the lay role in Vos estis lux mundi, such as it is, the bishops might feel pressure to address that at their June meeting. To that end, they might consider a resolution calling on metropolitans to make use of review boards, and inserting that as a provision into the implementation "directives" that document suggests bishops' conferences develop.

What they could also do, especially in light of Vos estis lux mundi, is again consider a measure encouraging the Holy See to release results of its internal investigation concerning McCarrick, and consider a resolution encouraging bishops in McCarrick's former dioceses to do the same. A resolution asking the Vatican to release results fell flat at the November meeting. But six months have passed, and with practically no information having been released, the bishops might decide to try again.

In a May 9 statement, USCCB president Cardinal Daniel Dinardo said that Vos estis lux mundi is "a blessing that will empower the Church everywhere to bring predators to justice, no matter what rank they hold in the Church. It also permits the Church the time and opportunity to bring spiritual healing."

The document has largely been received in that spirit. But the U.S. bishops have spent months telling lay Catholics they should be part of a transparent process, and Vatican officials have said that clericalism is at the root of our sexual abuse crisis. Whether Vos estis lux mundi is actually seen to increase lay involvement and transparency, while decreasing clericalism, will depend, in large part, on what the bishops do next.