From Palaces to Courtrooms

Yesterday, Pope Francis released a motu proprio called “Vos estis lux mundi” [You are the light of the world”] offering new guidelines for leaders within the Catholic church on how to respond to clerical sexual abuse. 

In Vatican parlance, a motu proprio is an official statement from the Pope that lays out a situation and on which he then makes a papal decree. The motu proprio is the most hierarchical of all documents, since it is issued only in the name of the Pope.

“Vos estis lux mundi” deals with crimes of sexual abuse and, for most of the brief document, there is little to surprise anyone who understands the monarchy that we call the Roman Catholic church. And problems within a hierarchy can only propose hierarchical solutions, unless they want to threaten the system. We should not therefore be surprised that Pope Francis proposes escalating problems to higher authorities within the church as a key part of the solution.

Some are celebrating the answer of bringing the concern higher up in the chain of command but there is reason for caution on this front. We all know that John Paul II had been informed about the case against Marcial Maciel, a serial sexual abuser, and that he continued to publicly praise him.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta responded to a question about the myopia of escalating the matter internally. As covered in the National Catholic Reporter:

Asked about why the apostolic letter does not mandate the involvement of lay experts in abuse investigations undertaken by metropolitan archbishops, Scicluna noted that metropolitans can ask lay people for help, but said: “We’re a Catholic Church, we’re not a congregational church.”

The message here seems to be that Catholic male clerics do not really need lay people to resolve problems, but they can call on them, on the rare occasions they deem it advisable. Asking why lay people are not involved is tantamount to saying that you do not understand how power is distributed in the Catholic church.  

But what if a critical element of the cause of the abuse is somehow the hierarchical structure itself, which elevates some people to a god-like status that tells them they bear the indelible mark of Christ-like priestliness on their very souls? 

The truly groundbreaking piece of the motu propio, I would argue, is the last provision: 

Art. 19 – Compliance with state laws

These norms apply without prejudice to the rights and obligations established in each place by state laws, particularly those concerning any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities.

Some commentators have already noted that reporting is not mandatory in all cases, but rather only in cases where the local government requires such reporting. But if it is the case that a local state does not require such reporting, that is a matter that can be addressed locally, offering at least a possible path toward greater accountability, which is why this article seems to break new ground.

Even as the rest of the motu proprio reinforces the sense that more patriarchy is the solution to the problem, the final article shows openness to a secular judicial process that does not elevate the accused to the inaccessible exalted heights of a clerical Olympus – a place beyond human accountability. No more, we can hope, will members of the clerical class, even bishops and Vatican officials working abroad, be permitted to hide behind clerical privilege that would forgive their sins while shielding them from being held accountable for their crimes in secular courts. 

Francis knows this may not work, that he may not have gone far enough. The new norms take effect on June 1, 2019 and are enacted for an “ad experimentum” period of three years. Yet this experiment has, in sometimes awkward waysalready started and the initial results give some cause for optimism that secular authorities may be able to help survivors find justice they could not find within the church.

Comments (1)

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    dolores pomerleau

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    Thanks, John. This is really well done.

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