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What Do I Think About Pope Francis' New Laws? It's Complicated.

Note: This post shares my analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the new laws for reporting and investigating abuse released by the Vatican on May 9. Before reading this post, make sure to check out my previous post summarizing the contents of this decree: What You Need To Know About Pope Francis' New Laws for Investigating Clergy Abuse. Also, stay tuned for a future post about the practical effects these new laws might have in the United States.


So, what are my thoughts about Pope Francis’ new laws?


Well, there is much to be praised in this document:


First, that this apostolic letter exists at all is a positive step. While the Church has had many years to confront these issues, it is clear that something has shifted at the highest levels of the Church and there is now at least some sense of urgency to construct a serious response. This letter is being released less than three months after the Vatican abuse summit, which is an incredibly fast response by Vatican standards.


While some of the requirements in this document seem almost laughably outdated by United States standards, we must remind ourselves that Pope Francis is legislating for a global Church. While we in the United States have had clear mechanisms for reporting abuse to Church leaders for many years, there are countries where this requirement is completely new. Similarly, the very idea that a lay person can and should report abuse by a priest, let alone a bishop, calls for a radical shift in Catholic culture in parts of the world. While we in the United States might be disappointed that these Vatican decrees don’t seem to move our local response forward in significant ways, Pope Francis has made very clear that he is first trying to bring the entire global Church up to certain basic standards.


The designation of abuse cover up (through both action and inaction) as a canonical crime is a significant step forward for the Church. This is exactly what so many lay people in the United States have been saying, especially since August 2018 - We want accountability not just for abusers, but for those who protected and enabled them. The fact that all clerics are now obligated to report concerns about episcopal mismanagement of abuse, coupled with at least theoretical protection for whistleblowers, could mean a significant upswing in reporting. Only time will tell.


From my perspective, the most important part of these new laws is an openness to consider adult victims of abuse, recognizing that power differentials can make what might appear to be “consensual” sexual activity between adults into a case of sexual abuse. Anyone reading about Theodore McCarrick’s conduct with seminarians can see that abuse of power changes the nature of these acts. Anyone hearing the story of an emotionally vulnerable young woman taken advantage of by a priest that she trusted can see that his behavior constituted abuse. If taken seriously, this declaration should have a serious, long-term effect on local responses to abuse of adults. (In fact, Cardinal DiNardo’s response statement acknowledges that the USCCB will now need to address this new canonical obligation. More on this in a later post.)


All of that said, there are some serious weaknesses in this document, and critics are certainly right to call out these limitations:


First, and most glaringly, this document does nothing to clarify the consequences and punishments for these canonical crimes. The procedures outlined are all about reporting and investigating allegations of abuse and cover up, but ultimately, these reports are still being sent to the same Vatican dicasteries that have been mishandling allegations for years. No guidance is offered for how these reports should be handled in Rome, and it’s entirely possible (maybe even likely) that honestly-reported and thoroughly-investigated reports will continue to disappear into the Vatican bureaucracy, without any transparency or consequences for those accused. Unless things change at this highest level, all the reporting and investigating could be totally meaningless.


Speaking of transparency, there are no provisions made for improvements in transparency, at least for anyone outside the hierarchical structure of the Church. Processes that move forward in secrecy will do nothing to reassure victims, ordinary Catholics, and broader society that things have changed in any significant way. It appears that in this system a victim could still make a report and never hear anything about their case again, as has happened with many, many survivors over the years. Because canonical proceedings in Rome are closed to outsiders, an accused priest can be found not guilty without any information from the trial ever being given to his accuser. Even a Metropolitan who brings forward a case has no authority to intervene after the case is sent to Rome. Are we just supposed to trust that cases are being handled appropriately once they get to the Vatican?


In a similar vein, there are no requirements for lay people to be involved in these processes in any way. Article 12 of the document does mention that a Metropolitan may act “either personally or through one or more suitable persons” and may invite others to assist, “taking into account the cooperation that can be offered by the lay faithful.” So, while the involvement of lay people is allowed, it is not encouraged in any strong terms, and it is certainly not required. In fact, the entire investigation and canonical trial could theoretically proceed without a single lay person being involved in any way. While our policies in the United States do require lay involvement at several levels, in many countries, lay people can continue to be completely excluded from a clerical process that will be conducted entirely in secret.


One of the most obvious criticisms of these new laws is that they do not mandate reporting abuse to civil authorities. To many of those who have no trust in the Church’s ability to handle these cases with integrity, reporting to civil authorities seems to be the only way to truly achieve justice. However, there is a legitimate concern that in certain countries, the legal system cannot be trusted to respond appropriately. For example, in places with active anti-Christian persecution, a priest could be endangering his own life or the life of other underground Christians by reporting and cooperating in a police investigation. In other countries, severely corrupt justice systems make civil trial a less-than-ideal process for finding truth. That said, it seems that if the Vatican wanted to make reporting to civil authorities the norm, a reporting requirement could have been included in these laws, with an opportunity to apply for an exemption for unique national circumstances. As it is, Church officials are only reminded that they are to follow the laws of their country in regard to reporting abuse.


In fact, one overarching criticism of this document could be that it presumes the good intentions and persistent effort of everyone involved in the process. If every priest, bishop, Metropolitan, and member of the Roman curia was a person of virtue and integrity who was motivated to seek justice even at the cost of great scandal for the Church, perhaps this system could work. In fact, I believe there are cases in which it will work, when those who happen to be involved are among the Church leaders who grasp the scale and seriousness of the problem and really do want to bring about change. (Yes, I believe those leaders do exist.) However, I think history has shown us that we cannot assume that all leaders of the Church will behave in an appropriate way. As long as there is no transparency, accountability, or oversight from outside of the clerical system, there is still room for secrecy, cover up, and injustice.


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So, what do I think of these new laws? As with many such questions, the only fair answer is this - It’s complicated.


Honestly, I think these rules are about the best we could have hoped for from Pope Francis at this moment in the Church. That doesn’t mean I think they’re great, but they are a step in the right direction.


I know some of those reading this blog are so disillusioned by the Church’s past failures that it’s hard to see these new laws as anything but “too little, too late.” I have sympathy for that position. If we are holding out hope for a radical restructuring of the Church’s response, in a way that fully includes the laity and ensures swift justice for abusive priests and complicit bishops, we are bound to be disappointed. The more I explore these questions, the more sure I am that any broad institutional response will take place in slow, small steps. Of course these new laws are not enough. There is just so much work to be done, and it won’t all happen in one decree.


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Cynicism is easy, and probably even justified, in the face of such widespread systemic failure over so many years. I get it. I really do. But personally, I chose to remain hopeful that the institutional Church is moving (albeit excruciatingly slowly) in the right direction.


Rather than walk away in disgust, I choose to keep on fighting and pushing to keep the momentum going. I hope you will join me.


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May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight,

Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

- Psalm 19:15

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