• Sara Larson

What You Need To Know About Pope Francis' New Laws for Investigating Clergy Abuse

Updated: May 16, 2019

On Thursday May 9, Pope Francis released new laws for the investigation of clergy abuse and cover up in the Catholic Church. The formal title of this letter is “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” - "You are the light of the world." This is the second document resulting from the Meeting on the Protection of Minors held at the Vatican in February, following the new child protection laws for the Vatican City State that were released on March 29. My own analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of these new rules can be found in my post What Do I Think About Pope Francis' New Laws? It's Complicated. But first, read on for some basic information about what’s in this letter.

You can read the whole document for yourself at the Vatican website here: Vos Estis Lux Mundi. It’s not very long, and I would recommend checking it out yourself before you buy into any analysis of the document, including my own.

The Basics

Pope Francis promulgated these laws through an “apostolic letter issued motu proprio,” which means that the new rules were decided on by the pope “on his own initiative,” that is, not through the work of a consultative synod, council, or other body; the document is personally signed by Pope Francis. Of course, practically speaking, this document was created through the efforts of many Church leaders and Vatican congregations who have been working on creating these policies since the Vatican summit in February. These universal laws, consisting of nineteen “articles,” apply to the entire Catholic Church (both Latin and Eastern rite) and take effect on June 1. As is common with new Vatican policies, they are due to be reviewed and revised after three years.

The letter begins with some introductory comments about the reason for these new laws: “The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims, and harm the community of the faithful. In order that these phenomena, in all their forms, never happen again, a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church, so that personal sanctity and moral commitment can contribute to promoting the full credibility of the Gospel message and the effectiveness of the Church’s mission… Therefore, it is good that procedures be universally adopted to prevent and combat these crimes that betray the trust of the faithful.”

What’s New

Acknowledgement of Adult Victims and Abuse of Authority: In the very first article of the letter, the scope of the problem to be addressed is expanded in a radical way, including not just sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults (and, significantly, possession of child pornography), but incidents of “forcing someone, by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts.” Previous statements from the Vatican and even from United States bishops have given very little attention to adult victims and the ongoing problem of abuse of authority, whether this regards abuse of religious sisters, seminarians, or others who are under the supervision of abusive clerics. While there is no clear definition here of what constitutes abuse of authority (including how this might apply to adults under the pastoral care of a priest), this is a significant change in the definition of the problem.

Taking Cover Up Seriously: Similarly, much of the conversation among bishops and other Church leaders has focused solely on the abuse of minors, without addressing the pervasive problems of episcopal misconduct. This is the first Vatican document that treats mishandling of abuse allegations as a serious problem requiring a serious solution. Article 1 specifies that “actions or inactions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations” are covered under all of the requirements of the following laws. In other words, episcopal misconduct regarding abuse cases - whether it’s active obstruction or passive negligence - must be reported and investigated in the same manner as the abuse itself.

Mandatory Reporting to Church Authorities: All clerics and religious are obligated to report promptly to the local Ordinary (the bishop or a similar authority in the Eastern Church) when they know or “have well-founded motives to believe that” either abuse or episcopal misconduct regarding abuse has occurred. (Note: This does not mandate reporting to civil authorities.)

Clear Procedures for Reporting and Investigation: The majority of the text outlines procedures for reporting and investigating allegations of abuse or cover up, including specific guidelines for when bishops themselves are the ones implicated:

  • “Public, stable, and easily accessible systems” for reporting must be established in every diocese. Any person can report abuse or episcopal misconduct to their bishop, the Vatican, or the Church's ambassador in their country.

  • In cases where the allegation involves a bishop or other religious superior, these reports are to be sent to both the Vatican and the Metropolitan Archbishop of the region. (The “metropolitan” is the Archbishop of the “metropolitan see, ” usually the largest city, of an episcopal province in a particular region. For example, the entire state of Wisconsin is one episcopal province, so the Metropolitan for all dioceses in Wisconsin is the Archbishop of Milwaukee, Jerome Listecki.) In cases when the Metropolitan is himself accused, reports can be made to Holy See through the papal nuncio in the country.

  • Upon receiving a report, Metropolitans are to “immediately” contact the Vatican to be authorized to conduct an investigation. (The Vatican can also choose to give someone else the authority to investigate.)

  • The Metropolitan proceeds to conduct an investigation (personally, or with the assistance of “one or more suitable persons”) and send its results to the Vatican. The Metropolitan can also request “precautionary measures” for the accused cleric during this time.

  • The appropriate Vatican Dicastery (department of the Roman Curia) receives the results and determines the final outcome of the case.

Straightforward Timelines: One of the ongoing problems in the handling of abuse allegations has been slow bureaucratic processes that leave victims and the entire public skeptical about real resolution. These new regulations give specific deadlines: systems for reporting must be established in every diocese worldwide by June 1, 2020; the Vatican Dicastery must reply within thirty days of receiving notification from the Metropolitan; the Metropolitan must send a status report on the investigation to the Vatican every thirty days; investigations must be completed within ninety days unless an extension is granted.

Protection of Whistleblowers: While this section of the rules is not very specific, there is an assertion that “prejudice, retaliation, or discrimination as a consequence of having submitted a report is prohibited” and may even be treated as a punishable action under the provisions of these new laws. Significantly, this section also specifies that “an obligation to keep silent may not be imposed on any person with regards to the contents of his or her report.”

Compliance with Local Laws: The final article of the letter specifies that “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.” In countries or regions where reporting abuse to civil authorities is required by law (like in many states in the United States), clerics are obligated to comply with those laws. This is the first time this has been made clear in universal Church law.

As I see it, these are the major changes contained in Vos Estis Lux Mundi. More analysis of both the strengths and the limitations of this document to follow soon.


Saint Damien of Molokai, friend and brother to the isolated and suffering,

holy priest unafraid to live, love, and die in communion with those in pain,

pray for our Church.

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