Pope Francis on Saturday promulgated an updated version of Vos estis lux mundi, a procedural policy aimed at investigating allegations of abuse or administrative negligence on the part of bishops and other leadership figures in the Church.
The revised policy makes permanent the norms introduced experimentally by Pope Francis in 2019, while broadening the scope of the law to include investigations of lay leaders in international associations of the faithful.
But even as the revised norms were promulgated Saturday, one prominent Churchman said that a fruitful use of the law depends upon the actions of bishops and other Church leaders.
“The law remains an opportunity and also a tool, but it is up to us to assimilate the values engraved in these regulations and apply them. Behind the law, therefore, there must be the will, so often encouraged and advocated by Pope Francis, for feasible solidarity,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna, adjunct secretary of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, told Vatican Media March 25.
“The pope very often repeats this phrase: 'When one of us suffers, we all suffer.' If there is this attitude of solidarity, if there is the thirst for justice of which Jesus speaks, but also the will to do good, then the law becomes a living instrument, otherwise, like all laws, it could remain a dead letter,” Scicluna added.
So what’s actually new in the 2023 version of Vos estis lux mundi?
The Pillar highlights the key changes.
One significant change to the text of Vos estis lux mundi is the inclusion of lay leaders of international associations recognized by the Holy See, who might now be investigated either for perpetrating abuse themselves, or for failing to investigate or address allegations of abuse or misconduct made in the context of their communities.
The move was likely influenced by revelations which emerged in recent years concerning the spiritual and sexual abuse of prominent Catholic layman Jean Vanier, founder of the international L’Arche community, who died in 2019. While the new norms would not have actually impacted the allegations against Vanier himself, because L’Arche is not recognized as an association by the Holy See, it would apply to other founders of international apostolates, movements, or spiritual associations accused of abuse.
Pope Francis has made other moves in recent years to ensure that the founders or other superiors of lay associations are not positioned to create cults of personality in which abuse can flourish. In 2021, the pope set term limits that prohibited leaders of lay associations or ecclesial movements from serving in central leadership positions for more than 10 consecutive years.
The revised text of Vos estis lux mundi clarifies that investigations of lay leaders will be undertaken under the aegis of the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, which is given legal competence to oversee them.
The text does not make clear how lay leaders might be punished for sexual abuse if the allegations arise after their terms have expired. While clerics can face the penalty of laicization, it is not clear what meaningful sanction might be imposed on a layperson.
‘Vulnerable persons’ and ‘Vulnerable adults’?
One of the most noted changes to the new, permanent Vos estis is use of the phrase “vulnerable adult,” which does not appear in the 2019 version of the text.
But while the new text uses the phrase “vulnerable adult,” instead of the previously used term — “vulnerable person” — there is no actual change to the definition in the new law.
The updated version defines “vulnerable adult” in the same way the the 2020 text defined “vulnerable person” — “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal freedom which in fact, even occasionally, limits his or her ability to understand or want or in any case to resist the offense.”
The change from “vulnerable persons” to “vulnerable adults” makes the language more precise, but doesn’t actually expand or restrict the application of this definition in law — all “persons” are either adults or minors, all minors are considered vulnerable in law, and vulnerable adults were already covered under the previous term.
It is worth noting that the definition of “vulnerable person” in Vos estis was initially a source of considerable confusion between Vatican departments when the document was first issued in 2019.
The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has exclusive competence to handle cases of sexual abuse of minors and, according to its own law, those who “habitually have an imperfect use of reason” — adults with severe mental disabilities, who are considered legally equivalent to minors.
But it was not clear whether the expended definition of “vulnerable adult” gave an expended competence to the DDF to adjudicate cases of other kinds of “vulnerable adults.”
The DDF clarified in 2020 that it remains competent only to handle penal cases involving minors and those equivalent to them in law.
Archbishop Scicluna then clarified that unlike the sexual abuse of minors, the abuse of “vulnerable adults” is not a crime whose adjudication is reserved to the Apostolic See.
In 2021, Scicluna explained to U.S. bishops that they are responsible for canonically prosecuting sexual abuse of vulnerable adults committed by clerics in their dioceses.
In fact, Vos estis seemingly created a new responsibility for local bishops to investigate and prosecute such crimes — though that new legal obligation has not been widely understood in many dioceses.
In a major presentation to the USCCB’s plenary assembly that year, Scicluna explained that the new responsibilities for local bishops created by Vos estis would require a major shift in diocesan administration, changing how bishops treat acts of clerical sexual misconduct which they had previously considered to be moral failures, but not canonical delicts.
That presentation was not widely reported, and, despite its implications, received almost no reaction from diocesan bishops or Catholic media.
Blowing the whistle
The 2019 version of Vos estis made clear that any person was free to submit a report of episcopal abuse or administrative misconduct. While the 2023 repeats that point, it specifically indicates that “the lay faithful who hold offices or exercise ministries in the Church” are free to submit reports.
That move came after laity in some counties expressed concern that they would face employment retaliation if they made Vos estis reports.
The 2023 version also clarifies that neither those who make Vos estis reports, nor witnesses to alleged misconduct, can be bound to secrecy in the course of the investigation. The previous version did not specifically mention witnesses.
That revision might effect an immediate change in the way investigations in the United States are carried out. When an apostolic visitation to the Diocese of Knoxville was carried out last year after Vos estis reports were filed against Bishop Rick Stika, the priests and laity who participated in the visitation were required to sign non-disclosure agreements before their interviews with investigating bishops. Presumably, such agreements will not be required in future investigations, in light of the amendment to Vos estis.
Conflicts of interest
Like the 2019 text of Vos estis, the 2023 text requires metropolitan archbishops to recuse themselves from investigating allegations against suffragan bishops if they have conflicts of interest.
But the 2023 text also explicitly requires anyone connected to the case to contact the relevant Vatican department if they believe there is a conflict of interest, so that it can be investigated.
Since Vos estis was promulgated in 2019, allegations of conflicts have arisen. In January 2020, for example, Cardinal Timothy Dolan was appointed to investigate allegations that Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio had sexually molested a young boy in the 1970s.
But while Dolan was charged as an investigator with impartiality, he had a record of praise for DiMarzio, whom Dolan had extolled previously as “a friend, and a brother, and a real mentor.”
DiMarzio was exonerated by Dolan’s investigation, in which the cardinal involved professional investigators and law enforcement personnel. But for some Catholics, the credibility of the investigation was impugned by the cardinal’s confidential investigation of a bishop he’d lauded as being “really close to him.”
It is not clear how complaints about conflicts of interest will be handled at the relevant departments of the Vatican, but the new law seems at least to have been more informed by concerns about the appearance of blurred lines of impropriety between investigator and investigated bishops.
A good reputation
The 2019 text explains that “the person under investigation enjoys the presumption of innocence,” and that phrase is repeated in the newly promulgated 2023 text of Vos estis.
But the 2023 text adds that every person under investigation enjoys “the legitimate protection of his good reputation.”
Later in the 2023 text, when investigators and other staff members are required to “take an oath to fulfill their duties properly and faithfully,” specific reference is made to the “presumption of innocence” and “good reputation” provisions of the law.
While the Holy See has not commented on these changes, they seem intended to warn investigators and other officials against leaks of some kinds of information during the course of investigations.
While the 2019 text called for every diocese and bishops conference to be prepared to receive reports, and to establish offices if needed, the 2023 text requires explicitly that offices for the receipt of reports be established, and that they be “easily accessible to the public.”
The ordinarily competent ordinary
Like the 2019 text, the 2023 text requires any bishop who receives a report to send it on to both the bishop of the place where the alleged abuse took place, and the bishop of the person accused of abuse. But while the 2019 text did not specify which of those bishops had responsibility to move the case forward to Rome, the 2023 text clarifies that the “ordinary of the place where the alleged events would have occurred,” is responsible for forwarding the case on to Rome, and fulfilling any other necessary requirements of law.
How has Vos estis been used so far?
The revisions to Vos estis, which come nearly four years after the text’s 2019 promulgation, seem aimed at tweaking elements of a process that has been used with mixed results across the Church.
In the U.S., several bishops have been the subject of Vos estis investigations. A few bishops have been formally exonerated following Vos estis investigations, and one was permitted to resign after he was found guilty of administrative misconduct, But the results in several cases have not been made known to the public, and some investigations are not seemingly concluded.
The revisions to Vos estis do not address any obligation to inform the public about the results of investigations, leaving it difficult for observes to assess the effectiveness of the law.