VATICAN CITY— Five years after the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, Pope Francis has made permanent new updates to the laws addressing sex abuse and reporting in the Catholic Church.
The announcement, in the form of a “motu proprio” (a document written directly by the pope, on his own initiative) was published in Italian on Friday, with little pomp and circumstance usually attributed to papal documents of this significance.
In 2019, Pope Francis issued the first edition of “Vos estis lux mundi,” meant to be an “experimental” set of legal guidelines for reporting sex abuse cases in the Catholic Church, to include reporting bishops. Abuse victims commented, even then, that the guidelines weren’t going “far enough,” calling for “zero tolerance” against clergy accused.
After the Pope held a four-day summit on sex abuse later in 2019, victims complained little had been accomplished, and that practical applications of the “vos estis” reporting failed to cover groups defined as “vulnerable adults.” Such a definition, according to canonists, remains ambiguous under the new law. Are adults under spiritual direction or obedience to clergy, such as seminarians or nuns considered “vulnerable?” Interesting as well, the new law includes lay-led consecrated organizations such as Opus Dei or Regnum Christi, the latter which has been embroiled in a decades-long scandal of their founder’s making.
Following the public scandal and incarceration of Cardinal George Pell, where trial by media played an active role only for the High Court to later acquit him—balancing “zero tolerance” with equal application of the law—including assumption of innocence before proven guilty—is addressed in the new and permanent version published by the Vatican on Friday.
The Daily Wire contacted canonist and civil lawyer, Michael J. Mazza— graduate from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and whose practice specializes in defamation actions and advocacy for clerics, religious and laity— for his assessment of the new laws. Author of “The Right of a Cleric to Bona Fama,” Mazza immediately pointed out to the expanded focus on ensuring rule of law be held equally and expediently.
“I am very pleased to see the right to reputation is now specifically mentioned, along with respect for the presumption of innocence, in Article 5 §2 and Article 13 §7. But the proof will be in the pudding,” Mazza wrote in correspondence on Sunday. “It will be interesting to see if this very clear direction from the Holy See will have an impact on the odious — but very common — practice in the USA of publishing the names of “credibly accused” clerics before any penal process has occurred. This is often done in the name of “transparency,” but it wreaks an unjust, serious, and lasting harm to the reputation of accused clerics.”
As found in the multiple cases of Fr. Marko Rupnik of Slovakia, a well known modern artist who allegedly preyed on religious nuns while using the Sacraments, or the infamous ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, abuse cases have been known to remain stagnant, and even covered up for decades after being reported to Church authorities. Although the new laws dictate timelines for action to be taken, Mazza points out a glaring loophole. “It is still very interesting to me how “Vos estis lux mundi” (VELM) sets specific timelines,” Mazza wrote. “Priests and deacons have noted that while it is very nice that such tight deadlines are in place for the bishops, no such deadlines are in place for ordinary clerics. The concept of a very obvious double standard seems to be lost on the leadership.”
Additionally, it seems that the Pope’s new law protects the confidentiality of conversations that take place outside the seal of confession. “The new VELM contains a slight but potentially significant change in the reporting obligations,” Mazza pointed out. “Now defined in terms such that anything revealed to a cleric “in the internal forum” is excepted from the reporting requirement (i.e., broader than the seal of the confessional, but no longer specifically referenced to canon 1548 §2).”
When it comes to crimes of a sexual nature, however, the Pope seems to make it clear that civil law must be considered primary to that of canon law—whether reporting, investigating, trying or conviction. For Mazza, this fact, which seems good in substance, could prove extremely problematic if civil law is actively hostile to the Catholic Church. “As always, in these antinomian days, the real impact of this is going to be seen in the coming months and years; i.e., whether the law actually be applied as written or whether it be applied only when it suits the needs of bishops/superiors (or, perhaps even more directly, their lawyers).”