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Will New Church Laws on Abuse Make Any Difference in the United States?

It has now been three weeks since Pope Francis released new church laws regulating the reporting and investigating of clerical abuse; these laws officially take effect today, June 1. As scores of commentators have noted, many of the laws in the Muto Proprio Vox Estis Lux Mundi will have little impact on the Church in the United States. We already have clearly defined reporting procedures for allegations of abuse of minors, as well as a requirement that Church leaders report criminal matters to civil authorities. (Of course, whether these policies are effectively and consistently implemented is a separate question.) The most significant impact of these new laws will be in other parts of the Catholic world, in dioceses that are just beginning to acknowledge and address the problem of abuse within the Church.


(If you need a reminder of what's contained in this Muto Proprio, please go back to my previous post, What You Need To Know About Pope Francis' New Laws for Investigating Clergy Abuse. For my analysis and opinion of these laws, check out What Do I Think About Pope Francis' New Laws? It's Complicated.)


So, will these new laws make any difference here in the United States?


Yes, if church leaders take these rules seriously, they certainly will.


Abuse of Adults

The most significant change should come in response to the new “scope of application” for these policies, which includes “forcing someone, by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts.” Previous universal church law addressed the abuse of certain vulnerable adults, but the definition was very narrow, simply stating that “a person who habitually lacks the use of reason is to be considered equivalent to a minor.” In the United States, diocesan policies have often been defined so as to apply to adults with severe physical or mental disabilities, as well as elderly persons with Alzheimer's or other limiting medical conditions. These interpretations have not addressed situations of abuse of authority, such as the abuse of seminarians by powerful clerics or other situations where a power differential impacts the ability of an adult to refuse sexual advances. The case of Theodore McCarrick is just one example of the many ways that power dynamics can enable the abuse of adults.


Beginning today, universal Church law requires that diocesan policies explicitly include situations of “violence or threat or abuse of authority” in their abuse reporting policies. While many dioceses will probably take some time coming into compliance, the statement from Cardinal DiNardo, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, explicitly acknowledges that “reporting mechanisms will have to be modified to serve the broader categories of the Motu Proprio.” For example, here in Milwaukee, the May 30 edition of the Catholic Herald announced Archbishop Listecki’s plans to appoint a “Fitness for Ministry Oversight Board” that should address some of these issues. (More details on this to come.)


This is good news. The more I have learned about the problem of sexual abuse within the Church, the more obvious it has become that our current laws are seriously deficient in protecting vulnerable adults from abuse. I continue to hear stories of adults who have been taken advantage of by clerics in positions of power - seminarians propositioned by respected professors, religious sisters raped by powerful priests, emotionally vulnerable people manipulated and abused by pastors in the context of spiritual counseling.


I will be closely following the new policies to see how broadly “abuse of authority” is defined - Will they only include formal authority relationships like those of seminarians with their formators or church employees with their supervisors? Or will relationships of spiritual authority, like those involved in confession, spiritual direction, and pastoral care, be included? These questions of scope have not yet been answered, but even a narrow application would still be a significant step forward in the United States.


Accountability for Bishops

Another glaring omission in our current policies in the United States is accountability for bishops who have mishandled abuse allegations or have themselves been accused of abuse; these new laws do attempt to address that omission.


You may remember that back in November, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approached their General Assembly with plans to vote on proposals for bishop accountability through some kind of national lay oversight board. Instead, Cardinal DiNardo began the assembly with the jaw-dropping announcement that the Vatican had asked the USCCB to delay voting on any plans until after the February abuse summit at the Vatican, presumably to ensure that the United States would not implement policies that were out of sync with coming global policies. Now, it appears that the waiting is over, and the USCCB will be able to vote on concrete proposals at their June General Assembly.


However, the new universal laws prescribe a particular approach for bishop accountability, organized through the authority of metropolitan bishops. I have been skeptical of this approach since it was first mentioned at the November General Assembly by Cardinal Blase Cupich, as it continues to reply on bishops to police other bishops, without any true accountability to the laity. (Can we really presume that any Metropolitan would be truly “free of conflicts of interest,” as required by these regulations, if he is called upon to investigate brother bishops in his own region?)


Regardless of these concerns, the “metropolitan model” appears to be the new global standard, so now it’s time to focus on the most effective and transparent ways to implement this kind of structure. In Milwaukee, the bishops of Wisconsin are developing a process for reporting misconduct by bishops “including instances where bishops are not honoring their commitments in responding to clergy sexual abuse or living up to safe environment standards.” More information about these procedures should be forthcoming, and I will be watching to see what level of transparency and lay involvement are included in this process.


Mandated Reporting

I don’t really know the impact that canon law requirements have on the behavior of individual priests, but according to these new rules, every cleric who is aware of abuse or even mishandling of abuse is required to report this. Certainty is not even necessary - the language requires reporting even when someone simply has “well-founded motives to believe that” a person has violated any of the provisions of these laws. The requirement also extends into past behavior, with a specific mention of clerics who “have been” heads of dioceses. If this obligation is taken seriously, I would expect to see an increase in reporting by priests who are aware of behind-the-scenes mismanagement of abuse cases in their own diocese.


However, this reporting may only happen if more specific whistleblower protections are put into place. The new laws specify that “prejudice, retaliation, or discrimination as a consequence of having submitted a report is prohibited.” However, without any clear guidelines for what this means, it’s hard to see how this single sentence will have much effect in protecting whistleblowers. I have read many stories about the subtle retaliation that often takes place after a cleric “breaks rank,” but much of it would be difficult to prove, and there are no provisions made for how a priest would seek protection from this kind of retaliation.


What’s Next

The next major step in the United States will come when all of the country’s bishops come together for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops General Assembly, beginning June 11. Very little information has been released about the proposals that will be considered at this meeting, but the USCCB statement has this to say: “The work of our committees that has already taken place will be examined and adapted to work within the framework of the new Motu Proprio and will be the basis for deliberation over its implementation at the USCCB Plenary Assembly in June.”


While the Muto Proprio gives a basic framework and universal minimum standards for reporting and investigating abuse, I hope that the USCCB will go beyond these minimums, particularly by clarifying the definition of sexual abuse of adults and outlining a clear role for lay people in the process of investigating bishops.


I have cleared my calendar for June 11-14 so that I can watch the General Assembly - I’ll keep you posted!


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“Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up.”

- Galatians 6:9


Lord God, progress in our Church can feel so painfully slow.

Give us your strength and persistence as we continue working for justice.

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©2020 by Sara Larson