Pope Francis Updates His Key Anti-Abuse Law – Response from BishopAccountability.org

BishopAccountability.org [Waltham MA]

March 25, 2023

By Anne Barrett Doyle

Today’s long-awaited update of the Pope’s key anti-abuse law is a big disappointment.

Pope Francis missed an opportunity to fix the grave flaws of Vos estis lux mundi that have rendered it ineffective.

Today’s revision delivers a few modest changes, some of which are welcome. It’s good that it clarifies that abuse of vulnerable adults is a crime under canon law and that lay leaders of religious associations can be subject to penalties too.

But this policy needed an extensive revamping, not a few tweaks.

Vos estis remains self-policing packaged as accountability. It keeps bishops in control of investigating and judging allegations against fellow bishops. It omits any requirement to inform the public. It tells bishops that they do not have to report child molestation to civil authorities unless they are mandated to do so under local law. And it limits lay involvement to roles that are fragmented and powerless.

None of these weaknesses is addressed in the version released today.

The Catholic people were promised that Vos estis would be “revolutionary,” a watershed event for holding bishops accountable. But in four years, we’ve seen no significant house-cleaning, no dramatic change. Earlier this month, a top papal advisor admitted publicly that the Pope’s new policy is “not working.”

Of the roughly 5,600 living bishops worldwide, BishopAccountability.org has identified only around 40 who have been investigated under the new protocol. Fewer than half of these have been sanctioned, usually with leniency.

Before Vos estis was promulgated, the Pope led despairing victims and Catholics to believe that his robust response to the crimes of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick would be a precedent for a new era of accountability and openness.
But the McCarrick case has proved to be an aberration, a “one and done.” While several bishops have been found guilty of abuse or cover-up since the laicization of McCarrick, not one has been deprived of his priesthood or even his title. 

We earnestly call on Pope Francis to make major changes to Vos estis, beginning with these fundamental reforms:

1. Require full disclosure of credible allegations to the public. Under Vos estis, it is permissible to keep the public in the dark from start to finish: it includes no requirements to inform the faithful. Change this. To quote Archbishop Scicluna, “Information is of the essence if we really want to work for justice.” It’s also crucial to deter crimes and cover-ups.

2. Scrap the failed “metropolitan model,” and instead authorize laypeople to oversee reporting, investigations and judgment of cases against bishops and religious leaders. 

3. Mandate reporting to civil authorities whether or not local law requires it. That is, instruct every priest and religious to notify civil authorities of suspected or known sexual offenses, as well as suspected cover-up by church officials. The Pope could exempt clergy from this requirement in those few jurisdictions worldwide where there is good reason to fear that such reporting would imperil the safety of accusers and/or suspected offenders. 

These changes and more must happen if victims are to heal and children are to be safer inside the Catholic Church. 

BishopAccountability.org is an independent non-profit founded in 2003 that gathers and posts data and documents about the abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church.