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Pope Francis updates ‘vos estis’ procedures on sexual abuse, ‘culture of impunity is over’

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Boston Cardinal Seán P O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, speaks with reporters in Asunción, Paraguay, on March 13 2023, after inaugurating the Center for Studies on Human Dignity and Prevention of Abuse at the Catholic University of Asunción. (CNS photo/Courtesy of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors)

Pope Francis has updated the procedures for investigating allegations of sexual abuse or the cover up of abuse, specifying that the leaders of Vatican-recognised international Catholic lay associations and movements have the same responsibilities over their members that a bishop has over the priests of his diocese.

The updated version of Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You are the light of the world), published March 25, also expanded the categories of victims covered by the regulations to include vulnerable adults.

The original text spoke of the crime of “sexual acts with a minor or a vulnerable person.” The updated text read, “a crime against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue committed with a minor, or with a person who habitually has an imperfect use of reason, or with a vulnerable adult.”

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“Anything that expands the categories of those who should be protected is to be welcomed,” Oblate Father Andrew Small, secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, told Catholic News Service on 25 March.

Father Small also pointed to the updated document’s insistence that not only must dioceses and bishops’ conferences have a “system” for reporting abuse or its cover up, they also must have “organisms or offices easily accessible to the public” to accept reports.

Making the procedures “well known and publicly accessible is part of justice,” he said.

Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the Vatican Dicastery for Legislative Texts, told CNS the updated document was based on four years of experience operating under the previous version, but the update also was need to incorporate changes Pope Francis made in 2021 to the Code of Canon Law’s “Book VI: Penal Sanctions in the Church.”

The new rules go into effect on 30 April.

Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said in a statement that with the updated text, “the church’s ongoing work of preventing sexual abuse by ministers of the church received a further boost.”

Updating the norms, “Pope Francis has reconfirmed the serious responsibilities on bishops and others in leadership positions to ensure robust safeguarding policies and procedures are in place and are effective,” the cardinal said.

One thing the updated version did not do, however, was provide mandatory and explicit steps for revealing publicly when a bishop has been asked to or forced to resign because of abuse or covering up abuse allegations.

Many Catholics, including bishops, have called for such public notification after news reports revealed that a bishop who “resigned” had been sanctioned by the Vatican.

In September, the Vatican confirmed it had placed restrictions on the ministry of Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo of Dili, East Timor, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for nonviolent resistance to Indonesia’s 24-year occupation of his homeland.

And in November, the French bishops revealed that Bishop Michel Santier of Créteil, who announced in 2021 that he was retiring for health reasons, had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct and disciplined by the Vatican.

Archbishop Filippo Iannone, prefect of the Dicastery for Legislative Texts, was asked whether Catholics in general have a right to know when a bishop or priest has been disciplined for abuse or for covering up abuse.

Oblate Father Andrew Small, secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, speaks to reporters in the Vatican press office on October 28, 2022, about the commission’s fall meeting. (CNS photo/Cindy Wooden)

“A distinction must be made between those who have a legitimate interest in the case,” specifically the victim, and the public, the archbishop said.

Asked the same question, Bishop Arrieta responded that “it depends on the level of scandal” and how widespread knowledge of the case is. “If the damage is limited to the victim and the victim is informed of the outcome (of the process), then you could argue that justice has been served.”

In his statement, Cardinal O’Malley said that “as much as possible, those impacted by abuse should be keep informed about the status and the eventual outcome of any case pursued because of any accusation made. Communicating the process of the church’s disciplinary system goes to the heart of its effectiveness. Judgments should be made available to interested parties, especially to those making accusations and the victims of sexual abuse.”

Archbishop Charles Scicluna, adjunct secretary of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, told Vatican News “one of the strongest changes” the pope made was to add laypeople leading Vatican-recognized organizations or movements and priests leading clerical associations to the list of those covered by Vos Estis. Like bishops, they must act when allegations of sexual abuse or the abuse of power are made, or they can face a Vos Estis process.

Abuse within several Catholic movements have made headlines in the past several years. Perhaps the best known was the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, founded in Peru in 1971. An internal investigation in 2017 found that Luis Fernando Figari, who began the movement and headed it until 2010, and three other high-ranking former members abused 19 minors and 10 adults.

In 2017 the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life banned Figari from living in a Sodalitium community, participating in Sodalitium activities or contacting any Sodalitium member.

Father Small said Pope Francis’ update—declaring “Vos Estis” to be “definitive” and no longer “experimental”—shows that the church still has work to do in implementing its laws to punish abusers and those who cover up abuse. Expanding its coverage to include leaders of lay movements, he said, is an important part of the church’s global safeguarding efforts.

The definitive text of “Vos Estis,” Father Small said, “is a clear sign that a culture of impunity is over in the church.”

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