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Can anyone at the Vatican agree on who’s a ‘vulnerable adult’?

Following the latest wave of legal reforms aimed at bringing legal clarity and due process to the Church’s handling of sexual abuse and misconduct cases, Pope Francis has now approved legislation offering several competing definitions of who is a “vulnerable adult” and who is the equivalent of a minor in the Church’s criminal law. 

The differing definitions in different laws have been a source of confusion for canonists, Church officials, and abuse reform experts as they try to move the Church closer to a consistent application of best practice in handling abuse cases.

Candidates for ordination. Alamy Stock image.

But without a common definition of even basic terms, is coherent reform possible?


In March, Pope Francis reissued on a permanent basis his 2019 motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi. 

That law, created in the immediate fallout of the Theodore McCarrick scandal and the sexual abuse crisis in Chile, offered a new legal definition of “vulnerable adults” against whom clerics could commit crimes of abuse.

The need for an expanded legal category of “vulnerable adult” was widely viewed as necessary following a range of scandals involving a disparity of power and spiritual authority by abusers as a means of coercing adult victims.

Vos estis provided for a definition of the category as “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offense.”

That definition was considerably expanded from the previous definition, contained in the special law for crimes reserved to the judgment of the Apostolic See’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, which recognized the category of “a person who habitually has the imperfect use of reason” as someone “to be considered equivalent to a minor” in cases of sexual abuse. 

That legal standard, which involves cases of abuse which only the Vatican can judge, is defined as applying to someone with mental illness or a developmental disability — a much narrower category than that laid out in Vos estis.

For some years after Vos estis was first issued in 2019, canonists and curial officials debated whether Vos estis’ broader definition was meant to effectively modify the definition in SST, which would expand massively the number of cases reserved to the DDF, or create an entirely new legal category.

That confusion was acknowledged by leading officials at the DDF, and eventually resolved, in a revised version of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, on penal law, issued by Pope Francis in 2021, meant to systematically incorporate a raft of papal legislation issued in the wake of different sexual abuse crises since 2001.

In the revised canon 1398, the law recognized two distinct categories of “a person who habitually has an imperfect use of reason [equivalent to a minor] or with one to whom the law recognises equal protection” under the definition of Vos estis.

U.S. bishops were told in 2021 that the laws were not creating juridic equivalence between vulnerable adults and “a mentally disabled person or a minor,” but that people like seminarians, spiritual directees and Church employees, had been granted equal protection by the law as a separate category.

While these different categories might appear to be distinctions without difference, they can carry with them very different legal requirements about how a case is handled, by what authority, and what punishments can or should be imposed in cases of abuse.

And there has been considerable disagreement about whether “vulnerable adults” should actually all be considered equivalent to minors under law — even among the Vatican’s own top experts.

In 2018, Cardinal Séan O’Malley of Boston, president of Pope Francis’ Pontifical commission for the Protection of Minors, advocated for the wholesale expansion of the SST category of vulnerable adults, telling the U.S. bishops’ conference meeting in November of that year that "I think we need to extend [the definition] to adults who can be the victims of abuse of power."

O’Malley’s proposed change, which would have seen all such cases, including those involving the abuse of seminarians and Church employees, treated as legally equivalent to the sexual abuse of a child, was opposed in the November 2018 meeting by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who was heavily involved in the drafting of Vos estis, which was released some six months later.

Cupich argued that “in some of the cases with adults involving clerics it could be consensual sex, anonymous [sex], but also involving adult pornography.” 

“There is a whole different set of circumstances that need to come into play here as it is examined, and a whole different skill set as well," Cupich argued in 2018. "I would strongly urge that [the categories of minor and vulnerable adult] be separate because it's a different discipline."

While Cardinal Cupich’s view won out in the norms of Vos estis and the revised Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, the debate among experts over which adults are vulnerable, and how vulnerable they are, has continued.

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Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ, a founding member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and for years the Vatican’s de facto expert spokesman on issues of abuse reform, has repeatedly indicated that he believes the definition of vulnerable adult in Vos estis to be unworkable, and even unhelpfully broad.

The priest, who has previously said he was not involved in drafting the legal definition of “vulnerable adult” has publicly questioned an overbroad application of the term and highlighted how it detracts from sound application of the law. 

“Do you really want to be a 'vulnerable person' [just] because you are a woman and because you are a parishioner? I don't think so,” Zollner told a public Q&A session on abuse reform last month, shortly before announcing his surprise resignation from the pontifical commission and disaffection with its work and progress.

But if leading experts like Zollner, Cupich, and O’Malley have different views on who is a “vulnerable adult” and how they should be treated, the most recent Vatican legal reforms now suggest there is confusion over even the more narrow question of who is equivalent to a minor under canon law. 

On April 5, Pope Francis announced new reforms to the penal law of the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches (CCEO), intended to bring the Eastern law in line with his 2021 changes to the Latin Code of Canon Law.

As part of those changes, the text of canon 1453 of the CCEO was revised, with the apparent intention of bringing it into line with the previously revised canon 1398 of the Latin code. 

However, while Latin code makes reference to “a minor or with a person who habitually has an imperfect use of reason” as being equivalent in law (in line with SST’s established standard of someone with mental illness or a developmental disability), the new canon 1453 uses different language.

The new law for the Eastern Catholic Churches refers instead to minors and “persons who habitually lack the use of reason” rather than merely having an habitual imperfect use of it. While to the general reader this might appear to be a distinction without difference, it is, in fact, a distinct legal category all of its own.

In both the Latin and Eastern codes, a person who lacks the use of reason altogether is deemed non sui compos and equivalent in law not to a minor (under the age of 18) but to an infant — someone under the age of seven years old.

The result of the new terminology, then, appears to be the creation of another new legal standard for cases of clerical abuse involving adults, in which an adult doesn’t just have to exhibit the impaired reasoning of a minor, but the inability to reason at all of a small child, in order to be treated under the norms of SST.

The upshot of it all is that, while the leading experts on the Church’s attempts at abuse reform appear to disagree among themselves on who is a vulnerable adult, and how vulnerable they are, between Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, Vos estis lux mundi, the Latin Code of Canon Law, and the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches, there now exists four separate legal categories for adult victims of clerical sexual abuse, none of which appear to perfectly overlap with the others.

After years of effort, and countless pieces of papal legislation, it seems the Church is no closer to a coherent reforming agenda. And, as long as that remains the case, it seems likely that the Church’s application of its own reforms will always be, at best, incoherent.

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