The new abuse law is the biggest reform since 2001
Catholic Herald, 16 May 2019
Vos estis is a significant departure for the Church
Pope Francis has long argued that a thoroughgoing response to sexual abuse requires a conversion of heart and of ecclesial culture, rather than law. But law can be a mighty force in culture change, and the Holy Father did just that with his latest motu proprio mandating that all clerics must report sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable persons, abuse of authority for sexual purposes or any cover-up of the same.
Vos estis lux mundi is the most significant legislation since the motu proprio of St John Paul II in 2001, Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela. The latter mandated bishops to refer all cases of sexual abuse of minors to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which would then direct how the disciplinary cases were to be handled. It ended – in law – the capacity of the local bishop to handle the case, or not handle it, as he saw fit.
As an indication of how much has changed since 2001, when Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela – a veritable legal game-changer on sex abuse – was promulgated, it was done by means of a circular to bishops. No public release, no press conference. That the Church had even made this change only gained significant public attention when the scandals in Boston broke eight months later. In contrast, Vos estis was front-page news the world over the day it was released.
How much will Vos estis change matters? Consider the following entirely hypothetical case. I’ll use the Jesuits to illustrate how far-reaching the Holy Father’s reforms would be from his own perspective as a former Jesuit provincial. The same would apply to all religious institutes and dioceses, of course.
A Jesuit seminarian is his last year of formation, already ordained a deacon and thus a cleric, knows, or suspects with good reason, that the socius – the provincial’s chief deputy – is having consensual sexual relations with one of the novices. There is no coercion, no threats, and in fact such relationships are not altogether unknown in his province. They are not openly approved, but if discretion keeps them open secrets, no action is taken.
The deacon is now obliged by law to report the socius to the office set up by the Ordinary, in this case the father general of the Jesuits. It is likely to be an office set up by the local provincial. He has no option; he cannot let it pass, or decide to keep quiet. He must report it, with as much detail as he can provide, because it constitutes an ipso facto abuse of office for sexual purposes.
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