Permanent version of Vos estis lux mundi meaningless without will to use it

Catholic World Report [San Francisco CA]

March 25, 2023

By Christopher R. Altieri

A complete analysis of the new and apparently permanent version of Pope Francis’s signature reform law is certainly in order. Nevertheless, the fundamental issue really is not one of parsing legal niceties.

Pope Francis issued a permanent version of his signature reform law, Vos estis lux mundi, on Saturday. First promulgated in 2019 as a three-year experiment, Vos estis purported to facilitate the investigation of abuse and coverup in the Church and to streamline the procedures for trying churchmen accused of abuse, coverup, or both.

The new, permanent version of the paper reform changes some language in notable ways.

The inclusion of the term “vulnerable adult” is one, though the new version of the law defines the term in the same way the original defined “vulnerable person” – nebulously – as “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal freedom which in fact, even occasionally, limits his or her ability to understand or want or in any case to resist the offense.”

The change is unsurprising, given the explosion of scandal involving adult victims of Church leaders – especially though by no means exclusively clerics – but tweaking the language may be ineffective even as a sop if Francis continues in his unwillingness to apply the law with vigor.

Another modification makes it explicit that the law is applicable to lay leaders of movements and organizations who abuse people or cover up abuse. Men like the disgraced founder of l’Arche, Jean Vanier, come to mind. That said, a Vos estis investigation of his case would extend to the entire leadership of the Order of Preachers in France, virtually the entire Roman curia, much of the French hierarchy, and all the popes going back to Pius XI. In any case, there was nothing to suggest the law as originally written did not already apply to such figures as Vanier and similar.

As for churchmen, well, one need only ask Bishop Malone how he feels about Vos estis, or Bishop Hoeppner. The latter faced a Vos estis inquiry. Bishop Malone escaped investigation, despite mountainous evidence of coverup. Both retired with honor. It is worth mentioning in this regard that Francis, on Saturday, at last obtained and accepted the resignation of Osnabruck’s Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, the vice-president of the German bishops’ conference, whose admitted mishandling of abuse cases has destroyed his reputation and caused immense damage to the faithful and the Church in his home country.

A complete analysis of the new and apparently permanent version of Vos estis lux mundi is certainly in order. Nevertheless, the fundamental issue really is not one of parsing legal niceties. It is one of will to use the law. There, Francis has given candid observers ample reason to be skeptical.

One of the most astounding things about making the rounds of Catholic parishes and apostolates and outreaches – sometimes even of Catholic and Catholic-adjacent media – is the apparent strength of the Francis-as-successful-reformer narrative, coupled with the creeping sense among the faithful and interested outsiders that something is just a little off with the whole business.

A visit to a neighbor’s house this week drove it home for me.

On the coffee table in the living room was a little booklet published by the Knights of Columbus, talking about ways to build the domestic Church. The K of C are a terrific organization, and I am sure the booklet was choc-full of helpful suggestions, but I couldn’t get past the cover art.

Right on the cover, in fact, was a detail from a mosaic by Fr. Marko Rupnik SJ, the disgraced celebrity artist facing accusations of serial sexual, psychological, and spiritual abuse from at least fifteen women. The accusations are appalling: “Savage,” “violent,” “perverted,” “ritualistic,” are all accurate. To call Rupnik’s alleged deeds “diabolical” is prosaic. “Satanic” would not be too strong.

“How would anyone know that?” a dear friend and confidant asked from the passenger seat of my car on a trip upstate a day or two later. “Maybe they read my copy?” I quipped, smiling wryly. “I read your copy,” he said, playing straight. “Even if I read every word of it, I wouldn’t have made the connection.”

All that drove home for me how the crisis of abuse and coverup in the Church is baked-in, part of the works.

We are used to thinking of it as something like termites eating through once sound structures or groundwater undermining a foundation, but really it is in the brick, like Rupnik’s art, and from there it gets into everything. Rupnik’s art decorates our shrines and chapels from Rome to Lourdes to Fatima to San Giovanni Rotondo to Washington, DC, to New Haven and even on the far side of the world in Brisbane, Australia, and in dozens of lesser-known places in between.

Rupnik’s gruesome work shows up in stamps issued by the Vatican and logos he designed or inspired for everything from the World Meeting of Families to World Youth Day. Rupnik’s craft adorns our parish literature and catechetical resources. Rupnik’s work is here, there, everywhere. We can’t escape it, even if we can avoid seeing ourselves see it.

The Rupnik case is crying to heaven for precisely the justice Vos estis is supposed to secure, but using it properly would require investigators to toss the entire Slovenian province of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit generalate in Rome, the corner office in the DDF, and the pope himself.

I think of a ’ronatide talk I gave about covering the Vatican beat, to a group of people active in the Church and in their community. I gave the talk from Rome, via Zoom, and skipped most of the set piece in favor of a free-wheelin’ Q&A. If memory serves, I took a question about Francis’s efforts to improve transparency in the Vatican, and turned the tables on my audience with a question of my own: “How many of you have heard the name, Zanchetta?”

Because L’Affaire Zanchetta is precisely the sort of business for which Vos estis appears designed. But Zanchetta is the pope’s man.

Gustavo Zanchetta is the Argentinian prelate and olim general secretary of the Argentinian bishops’ conference who knew Francis when the latter was Archbishop of Buenos Aires and ex officio conference president. Francis made Zanchetta a bishop and put him in a see, then let him quietly retire after several rounds of abuse allegations and sent him to have his head shrunk before placing him in a bespoke sinecure inside the Vatican’s sovereign asset manager (even though Zanchetta had allegations of irregular asset management against him as well).

The name may have rung a few distant bells, but mostly, no one had heard of him or his vicissitudes. A criminal court in Argentina eventually convicted Zanchetta of abusing seminarians and sentenced him to jail time.

In June of last year, Pope Francis sent the canon lawyer who represented Zanchetta to investigate some of the very clerics who had denounced him to the Vatican when he was their bishop and testified against him in the criminal trial that saw Zanchetta convicted of sex crimes.

That is of a piece with Francis’s decision to task Fr. Jacques Servais SJ – a serious scholar and much beloved university professor, who is also a skilled confessor – with investigating misconduct allegations against the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, even though Ouellet was a senior board member of the Rome-based Casa Balthasar where Servais serves as director.

The Casa Balthasar is a terrific place for academic formation and spiritual discernment, as far as I know, though my only personal recollection of it or Servais was an afternoon meeting to discuss a possible academic collaboration maybe a dozen years ago. I crossed town (taking public transport) to make that meeting, after a long and boozy Roman lunch with fellow scribblers. I think I was late. Servais was the very picture of patient and gracious hospitality.

Servais, by the way, had no experience as an investigator until Francis tapped him to examine the allegations against Ouellet.

The investigation Servais conducted completely exonerated Ouellet, who has always maintained his complete innocence and called the allegations against him defamatory.

Careful parsing of the statement Servais issued after concluding his investigation and submitting his report actually suggests that the allegations, even if correct, did not rise to a level that could engender suspicion of criminal conduct on Ouellet’s part.

“There are no grounds to open an investigation into the sexual assault against person ‘F’ [the accuser’s identifier -ed.] by Cardinal M. Ouellet,” Servais said in a statement. “Neither in the written report sent to the Holy Father, nor in the testimony via Zoom that I subsequently gathered in the presence of a member of the Diocesan Ad Hoc Committee, did this person make any accusation that would provide grounds for such an investigation.”

The editors of the National Catholic Reporter – not exactly unsympathetic to Francis in the main – called the pope’s handling of the Ouellet business “baffling” and called on the Vatican to outline clearly just how Servais conducted his investigation and what he did or did not find. “The pope should also consider asking another investigator to reexamine the findings,” the NCR editor suggested.

They weren’t wrong.

“[T]he Vatican’s handling of the Ouellet allegations does not engender confidence,” they concluded in a masterly subtle display of litotes.

“The law remains an opportunity and also a tool,” the adjunct secretary to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Charles Scicluna – certainly among the most experienced investigators in the Church and a chief architect of several reforms – told Vatican Media on Saturday, “but it is up to us to assimilate the values engraved in these regulations and apply them.”

“Behind the law,” the Church’s leading sex crimes expert went on to say, “there must be the will, so often encouraged and advocated by Pope Francis, for feasible solidarity.” Given Francis’s record of governance, the squandered opportunities to use the law and his flagrant gaslighting of the faithful, one frankly wonders what that even means.