Analysis: Houston case raises questions about pope’s reforms

CNA 5137cafd7f475 18753 Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston arrives at the Vatican on March 5, 2013. |

A report was published Tuesday of an apparent affair between a married woman and a senior priest of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

While the case has provoked uncomfortable questions about what was or was not done to handle that situation in 2016, the more urgent question may prove to be: what should be done in similar situations now?

In 2016, Laura Pontikes told the archdiocese, led by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, that Msgr. Frank Rossi had used his pastoral relationship with her to coerce her into a year-long sexual relationship, while at the same time offering advice and support to her husband and soliciting large donations from the couple.

Most seriously, Pontikes alleged to AP that Rossi had heard her confessions throughout the affair, apparently attempting to absolve an accomplice in a sexual sin – one of the most grave crimes in canon law.

The exact details of the archdiocesan response to the complaint are disputed. The archdiocese insists that it directed Pontikes to report the matter to civil authorities at once – Texas law prohibits relationships between ministers and their flock – and immediately removed Rossi from his parish. Since then, it says, it has been in ongoing negotiations with Pontikes and made every effort to accommodate her.

After spending eight months in "rehabilitation," the archdiocese says that Rossi was recommended for a return to active ministry, but it was agreed with Pontikes that he would not be given any future role in the archdiocese. Instead, he was allowed to take "retired" status and seek a new assignment in the Diocese of Beaumont.

The most serious charge – that Rossi attempted to absolve an accomplice in an affair – remains unresolved. The Houston archdiocese say that this did not happen, Pontikes says that it did, and AP have reported that a Vatican investigation is underway; though sources in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, normally responsible for cases involving sexual crimes and the confessional, told CNA that no complaint has yet been received.

That issue to one side, the Rossi case highlights the gathering storm of confusion surrounding the motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi. Attention to that document, which came into force June 1, has mostly focused on new procedural mechanisms for investigating allegations of abuse against bishops. But, canonists have noted, its potentially most significant provisions concern new definitions of who can be a victim of sexual abuse.

In addition to minors, Vos estis also creates a category of abuse of authority and offers a far broader definition of "vulnerable adult" than has previously been applied.

According to the text of the document, such a person is now to be considered "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 offence."

Many have noted that the new definition could be argued to apply to virtually any sexual relationship involving a priest in ministry. The Rossi/Pontikes case would certainly seem to illustrate the now much-expanded grey area around "consent" in sexual sins involving priests. How such a case should be handled, and by whom, remains an open question both in Rome and in dioceses.

Vos estis provides that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith handle cases "regarding the delicts reserved to it by the norms in force."

Such crimes are currently defined by the motu proprio Sacromentorum Sanctiatis Tutela and include clerical sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults. However, the CDF's own definition of vulnerable adult is articulated in SST as "a person who habitually has the imperfect use of reason," essentially someone with developmental disabilities.

The distance between the two definitions offered by Vos estis and SST is currently under active discussion at the CDF, where officials are currently preparing their own vademecum – guidelines for implementation – on Vos estis.

Sources close to the drafting process have told CNA that the proposals for the vademecum include a clarification on the scope of cases it is competent to handle, and directing those offences which fall outside its competence to other Vatican departments, most especially the Congregations for Clergy and Bishops.

According to sources familiar with the preliminary CDF draft, the intention is to reassert the standing definition of vulnerable adult in SST and, by implication, remit those falling under the broader definition of Vos estis to other departments. Such a move, sources stress, would be motivated not only by a close reading of SST but also the simple practical limitations of staffing.

"[The CDF] is already badly short-handed," one official told CNA. "The idea that there are the resources to handle an entirely new classification of offence is crazy."

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If the demarcation between the broad and narrow definitions of "vulnerable adult" is included in the final draft of the vademecum, curial officials at the Congregation for Clergy could find themselves responsible by default for a slew of cases like that of Msgr. Rossi, and expected to come up with a new standard for assessing consent in sexual relationships with priests. To date, officials there have not been given any guidance on how to respond to a potentially new classification of crime by a cleric.

While many canonists in and out of Rome accept that the implications of Vos estis require close study and thoughtful response to be effectively applied, few expect that workable answers to new questions about consent in immoral clerical relationships will arrive soon.

Another of Vos estis' provisions is the introduction of a canonical requirement on all clerics and religious to report any well-founded suspicion of sexual abuse. This requirement, coupled with the broader definition of vulnerable adult, could result in a sudden influx of suspected cases but with no clear understanding of where to send them for evaluation, or what is to be done with them when they arrive.

As curial officials, bishops' conferences, and diocesan chanceries consider the theoretical implications of Vos estis' reforms even as they come into force, the Rossi case throws into sharp relief the urgent practical applications the document is intended to have.

Unless and until Roman officials and local bishops come to a clear understanding of how they will define a vulnerable adult and examine the role of consent in clerical sexual misconduct, there is a growing chance all concerned will find themselves with a backlog of complaints and no way to clear them.

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