Opinion: Why has Vos estis been a neglected tool?

Catholic World Report [San Francisco CA]

October 3, 2022

By Nicholas Senz

Pope Francis’s 2019 Motu proprio on addressing and handling abuse allegations apparently has some invisible appendix explaining that the law does not apply to bishops or cardinals who are powerful or notable.

Vos estis lux mundi, the Church’s process for handling allegations of abuse or negligent handling of abuse by bishops, has completed its three-year trial period. It is now ostensibly under review by the Vatican. Shall we review its operation?

Recently a Dutch magazine reported accusations of child rape against Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, a Nobel Prize winner from East Timor. The Vatican then revealed that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had been aware of the case since 2019 and that Bishop Belo had been under certain restrictions since 2020, including being forbidden from ministry in East Timor. Notably, Bishop Belo had resigned in 2002 at age 54, reportedly for “health reasons,” although he continued in active ministry outside East Timor, including in children’s catechesis. The Vatican gave no indication that Bishop Belo is or has been the subject of a Vos estis investigation or any kind of canonical process that might result in penalties or loss of the clerical state.

Also recently, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, bishop of Osbnabrueck and vice president of the German bishops’ conference, was identified by an independent investigation as having been negligent in abuse cases, repeatedly shuffling abusers between assignments, including those which would put them in contact with children. Bode announced that after prayerful consideration, he had decided not to offer his resignation, even claiming that Fr. Hans Zollner, the Vatican’s point man on abuse response, had given his imprimatur to this decision. He made no reference to the possibility he could be removed from office or subject to any further investigative or penal process, as if it were solely up to him whether he would face any consequences for his misconduct.

Numerous independent investigations in Germany over the last few years have found several current ordinaries to have been negligent in their handling of abuse cases, including Cardinal Reinhard Marx and Bishop Felix Genn. Cardinal Marx publicly offered his resignation to the pope, while Genn, Bishop of Muenster, refused to do so. No offered resignations have been accepted. None of the bishops have faced a Vos estis investigation or any canonical process–or, if they have, no information has been made public.

In some cases, a Vos estis process has been reported to be underway, but no conclusion has ever been announced. In November 2020, for example, it was announced that Bishop Oscar Cantu of San Jose was under a Vos estis investigation. Vos estis II.14.1 states that investigations should be concluded within 90 days. Nearly two years later, though, no conclusion has been published, and Bishop Cantu remains in office.

In the cases of other bishops, while it was unclear whether Vos estis applied to their circumstances, the process has been questionable. Canadian news outlets reported that a class-action lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Quebec alleged that Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former archbishop of Quebec and current prefect for the Vatican’s Dicastery of Bishops, repeatedly touched and kissed a female chancery intern in an inappropriate and unwelcome manner in several incidents at public events between 2008 and 2010. The reports also reveal that the woman’s accusations were sent to the Vatican over a year and a half ago, and that an investigator was appointed to review the matter. While the woman was interviewed by the investigator over Zoom, she had heard nothing further from the Vatican on the matter. After these reports made the issue public, the Vatican released a statement saying that “there are insufficient grounds to open a canonical investigation for sexual assault by Cardinal Ouellet regarding person ‘F’.”

This was not a Vos estis investigation. And it appears there was some debate as to whether the accusations against the cardinal constituted “forcing someone, by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts” (Vos estis I.1.i). Instead of a Vos estis investigation, then, the investigation into the allegations against the cardinal was carried out by the Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jacques Servais, a theology professor living in Rome. Fr. Servais is not a canon lawyer, nor does he seem to have any discernible experience in these sorts of investigations.

What he does have is an apparent conflict of interest. As many reports have noted, Father Servais chaired the Lubac-Balthasar-Speyr Association; Cardinal Ouellet was also a founding member of this group and currently sits on the board. It is not hard to imagine the two men have some sort of fraternal or collegial relationship. This does not inspire confidence in the impartiality of the process. Was no one else available to handle such an investigation?

What are we to make of this? We have several instances of bishops who have been publicly accused of misconduct, whether by individuals or as the conclusion of independent reports, seemingly facing no consequences. It seems in some cases Vos estis has been tried and found difficult; in others, it has been found difficult and left untried. The tool put into place by Pope Francis to handle these situations appears to be left in the shed, unused.

Not entirely unused, true. Certainly, Vos estis investigations have taken place. A few have resulted in the exoneration of the accused, such as in the case of Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn. But one can’t help thinking that a pattern seems to be developing: Vos estis apparently has some invisible appendix explaining that the law does not apply to bishops or cardinals who are powerful or notable. Who has actually lost office as a result of a Vos estis investigation? Not the Nobel Prize winner or cardinal-archbishop of Munich—they were not even investigated. No, but Bishop Michael Hoeppner, formerly of tiny Crookston, Minnesota, did lose his office. And even he was allowed to resign, rather than being removed, and then celebrate a “mass of thanksgiving” before departing to warmer climes, pension in hand.

What are we to conclude? We might say that it is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of Vos estis because we have so little information as to how the investigations have been conducted, or how they reached their conclusions, or why some cases merited an investigation and others did not. The hierarchy has repeatedly promised greater transparency and accountability in its response to sexual abuse committed by the clergy. Have we seen that?

What is to be done? Even a perfect set of policies is worthless if it is not implemented. There’s no sense in having penal law in the Church if it is not enforced. In promulgating an updated book on canonical penal law, Pope Francis himself noted the great harm that had been done in the Church when the law was ignored: “In the past,” he wrote, “much damage has been caused by a lack of perception of the intimate relationship which exists in the Church between the exercise of charity and recourse—when circumstances and justice require it—to penal sanctions.” Apparently, the hierarchy knows this truth. When will they act on it?