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..- Pope Francis’
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.
It seems clear, for example, that a priest who has had a sexual relationship with a traumatized victim of abuse who comes to him for spiritual direction has committed a most grave offense, and should face the fullest measure of justice – civil and canonical.
But can the same be said for a newly ordained priest who, while still coming into maturity, kisses a parishioner with whom he is friends in a moment of indiscretion, after they both have a few drinks, and then immediately puts a stop to things?
Both are serious offenses that impact the good of souls and the public good. In both situations, the other party was impaired in some way, and could seem to meet the definition of vulnerability. Both should be addressed directly by ecclesiastical authorities. But ought those situations be treated the same?
Applying the Church’s new policy, some canonists have said, requires that Church officials clarify that different kinds of offenses will, and should, merit different kinds of penalties.
At the close of the global summit on sexual abuse in February, the organizing committee announced that the follow-up from the meeting would include a motu proprio, now published. They also said that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would produce a vademecum, a practical and procedural handbook, outlining for bishops their responsibilities.
Many in Rome and in diocesan chanceries have told CNA they hope that such a manual will address these concerns, spelling out or at least acknowledging an escalating gradation of crimes and correspondent penalties.
It is not clear when the CDF might publish such a document, or even if it will address these questions. But those concerns might be addressed by other Vatican or diocesan offices.
It is possible that bishops might soon request guidance from the Congregation for Clergy, the curial department which receives the vast majority of cases involving priestly misconduct and requests for laicization. Given that the Congregation for Clergy has long handled clerical sexual issues not defined as sufficiently grave to be sent to the CDF, its experience could prove valuable to bishops trying to understand new canonical definitions and their implications.
At the same time, bishops themselves might begin to act to bring the provisions of Vos estis into force in their own dioceses.
Bishops like Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori have already begun taking independent initiatives, like setting up third party reporting mechanisms, to address the current crisis. Bishops might soon decide to also establish localized policies reflecting the norms of Vos estis.
Bishops are canonically free to establish their own guidelines on how they will be applying the new norms of Vos estis, offering what many of the faithful say they want most to see: clear, concrete, steps towards reform in their own home dioceses.
Diocesan norms could also provide the reassurances that many priests are hoping for regarding their rights in the face of accusations, credible or otherwise, and the assurance that “zero-tolerance” will not be a byword for summary justice.
Before the February summit, Pope Francis repeatedly stated his intention not to provide a universal and comprehensive canonical solution to the sexual abuse crisis. Rather, the pope’s stated aim was to provide a global framework which supported bishops in their own responsibilities.
Despite Francis’s insistence that he is providing a foundation for local dioceses to build upon, many bishops are still tempted to look to Rome or the national bishops’ conference to tell them what to do next.
In the same way that no investigative model or review board can insulate the Church from individual episcopal negligence, no papal decree of conference policy can substitute for conversion and leadership by individual bishops. Rome has spoken, and bishops will now face the challenge of carrying out the pope’s direction.