Washington D.C., May 13, 2019 / 13:44 pm
Pope Francis’ recently promulgated policy on sexual abuse allegations made against bishops, Vos estis lux mundi, offers a new and much expanded interpretation of what constitutes a canonical sexual crime by a cleric.
That interpretation has raised real questions about how the law is to be applied, at the Vatican and in diocesan chanceries.
The new policy recognizes as explicitly criminal the abuse of authority in coercive sexual relationships, a move called for often in the wake of the Theodore McCarrick scandal. It also offers a new definition for “vulnerable” adults, a legal category of persons who could be subject to criminally coercive abuse.
The universal law of the Church previously defined a “vulnerable adult” as one who “habitually lacks the use of reason.”
The new definition classifies a “vulnerable adult” as “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offense.”
That definition could seem to cover a very broad swath of situations, which would be quite distinct from each other. Some Vatican and diocesan officials have told CNA they are concerned that the potentially broad applicability of the new definition could cause unjust expectations, and uncertainty about how to proceed in individual cases.
Specifically, some worry that Vos estis could foster a sense that nearly any sexual act committed by a priest is expected be treated on a par with the sexual abuse of minors, and lead to his removal permanent removal from ministry.
In a Church committed to zero-tolerance for sexual abuse, the new definition for “vulnerable adult” could make clergy discipline a decidedly more complicated undertaking.