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Pope issues final norms on abuse; key questions remain [News analysis]

March 27, 2023

Pope Francis has issued definitive rules for the handling of abuse complaints, in a final version of the 2019 document, Vos Estis Lux Mundi.

The definitive rules of Vos Estis, which take effect in May, add to the original document on several specific points:

  • Along with complaints of abuse by clerics and religious, the policies are also applied to complaints against lay people who lead “international associations of the faithful” that are recognized by the Vatican. The procedures could be invoked even after these leaders have left office.
  • The complaints to be investigated include not only sexual acts with minors, but also those with vulnerable adults. Whereas the earlier version spoke of a “vulnerable person,” the new rules speak of “a person who habitually has an imperfect use of reason, or with a vulnerable adult.”
  • Church investigators are not allowed to require someone who reports abuse to enter into a non-disclosure agreement. In the final version of Vos Estis, this protection is extended not only to people who report that they were abused, but also to witnesses.
  • The final version demands “the legitimate protection of the good name and privacy of all persons involved.”

The Vos Estis norms require ever diocese to have a “public, stable, and easily accessible” process for the reporting of abuse complaints, and provide for the handling of complaints against bishops as well as priests.

Questions Remain

However, the revised norms leave a number of crucial questions unanswered. For instance:

  • While lay leaders of Catholic organizations may be subject to canonical penalties, it is not clear how those penalties could be imposed (except insofar as they could be stripped of office), since the Holy See has no direct control over the lives of lay Catholics.
  • The definition of a “vulnerable” adult remains open to a broad range of interpretations.
  • The order to protect the reputation of everyone involved is obviously in tension with the requirement to conduct public investigations and encourage full disclosure.

To put the problem in more general terms, the definitive version of Vos Estis fails to resolve the basic problem with the original document: the enforcement of the norms remains entirely subject to the discretion of the bishops who interpret them. Yet it is precisely the discretion of the bishops that has been called into question in recent years; the lay faithful have lost confidence in the willingness of their bishops—and even of the Holy See—to address the abuse scandal forthrightly. Revelations about clerical abuse and cover-ups continue to emerge, despite promises of full disclosure, despite new policies and procedures.

Nearly three years ago, when the first version of Vos Estis was promulgated, I expressed these misgivings:

However, the new policy does not define the disciplinary action that would be taken against bishops who are found guilty of misconduct (including, under the new rules, the misconduct involved in covering up abuse). The new policies require an investigation, conducted under the auspices of the Holy See, with a report eventually being made to the relevant Vatican dicastery. But the papal document does not indicate what sort of punishments might be imposed on offenders.

Nor do the new norms address the lack of transparency that has characterized—and could continue to characterize—the Vatican’s investigations of episcopal misconduct. While the papal document requires the Vatican to investigate charges and take appropriate action, there is no provision for any public explanation of the disciplinary action.

On those crucial points, the final version of Vos Estis changes nothing.

Philip F. Lawler


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  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 27, 2023 1:18 PM ET USA

    And still not a single word about the abuse of Catholic boys and young men in seminaries by gay rectors and bishops. Yet that is precisely why bishop Gustavo Zanchetta is currently serving a prison sentence in Argentina.