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What does 'Vos estis' need now?

A three-year experimental phase comes to an end June 1 for Vos estis lux mundi, the set of canonical policies promulgated by Pope Francis for investigating allegations of abuse, misconduct, or administrative negligence on the part of the Catholic Church’s bishops.

Protestors at a meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, Maryland. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

Vos estis lux mundi came into effect June 1, 2019 for an ad experimentum period that officially concludes Tuesday. While an official extension has not been announced by the Holy See, Vos estis has been understood to remain in force, and is expected to undergo revisions in the months to come.

While Vatican sources tell The Pillar that some bishops have been asked for feedback on the document, it is not clear whether other Catholics interested in reform efforts will be asked for their views on the possibilities for revising Vos estis lux mundi.

The Pillar asked victim-survivors, advocates, ecclesiastical officials, and other experts for their suggestions on the prospect of revising Vos estis lux mundi.

Their responses, which have been edited for length and clarity, are below.

A protestor at the November 2021 assembly at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in Baltimore, Maryland. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

Sex and power remain unaddressed

Fr. Thomas Berg
Professor of Moral Theology, St. Joseph Seminary
Author, “Hurting in the Church

I think the Church still has a very serious problem with priests who are sexually active with adults. Many of these relationships are precipitated in part by the power differential that exists between clergy and laity. To that extent, these relationships cannot be understood as simply consensual; many of them actually constitute instances of abuse.

A revision of Vos estis lux mundi should zero in on how bishops handle cases of priests who have engaged in what are in essence sexually manipulative and abusive relationships with adults. This entails, of course, a willingness to tackle the difficult question of better defining the notion of “vulnerable adult.”

The Church remains largely blind to the population of adults who have suffered from this kind of abuse from priests. And rare is the bishop who wants to take a hard look at the issue in his diocese.

‘Vos estis’ is ‘a beginning’

Teresa Pitt Green
Cofounder of Spirit Fire, an apostolate “offering spiritual care to survivors and family members and providing training and formation in trauma-informed pastoral care.”

Vos estis is not a perfect document but for those of us seeking reform within the Church, at least it has dared to grapple with issues that must be resolved before the whole Church, as a family, can heal along with survivors of clergy abuse and with their loved ones.

Vos estis lux mundi addressed issues left unresolved in the United States Catholic Church. I remind Catholics that the United States Catholic Church, with its 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, had already covered some of the ground Vos estis covered for the rest of the globe. This is something to be hopeful about for our local churches. It’s also an important distinction to make for U.S. Catholics to evaluate the impact of Vos estis.

Vos estis went beyond the Charter in the United States by holding ordinaries as accountable as clergy and religious in the United States have been under the Charter since 2002. It is crucial to establish a process for just dealings among the clergy regardless of status, and there is much to be learned from this step and used to improve where we are now.

Vos estis addresses a critical issue of adults who are too vulnerable to exercise free consent in relationships which are inappropriate. But who is to define what is “inappropriate” enough to warrant what level of action, or what makes an adult “vulnerable?” The answers vary.

There’s reason to have hope about Vos estis, for example, in that some with ecclesial authority have been removed, but the process has not developed a consistent means of meting out justice to those removed, and that can affect people's trust in its ability to deliver justice consistently among accused men. It's good to remain vigilant and to communicate concerns and support for ongoing improvements in reforms.

Teresa Pitt Green addressed the U.S. bishops’ conference in November 2018. Watch her story here:

I see the greatest challenge in Vos estis -- and there are several — to be its decision not to define “vulnerable adult.”

That doesn’t mean I think the document in its first version is flawed, as much as I think it is a beginning.

I’d ask Catholics to consider how this document must apply to every culture in every region of the globe where the Catholic Church is found, and yet cultures vary greatly. Even the concept of child safeguarding in these areas varies greatly for many reasons, for example, national law, social customs, and political strife.

When it comes to dealing with such things as sexual behavior between a priest and a vulnerable adult, it will take a while for the Church to develop an approach that is culturally sensitive and morally sound.

That does not preclude the United States from moving forward by building on the strong, if somewhat precarious, foundation of the Charter, but Catholics need to make distinctions between what they expect in the United States and in the universal Church overall.

One would wish “priests remain chaste” would be enough, but this is a fallen world, and we must face that sometimes priests, too, are vulnerable. I think, as Vos estis evolves, Catholics in the United States are going to need to grapple with distinctions among abuse scenarios that we who are working in this area, see daily. That is, all abuse is wrong, but the abuse of a child is different from the abuse of a disabled adult, and both are different from the abuse of an adult who is vulnerable to a priest due to spiritual formation. Such diverse scenarios will warrant different responses from the ordinary — and from the faithful.

Guidance, and consistency, needed on investigations

Susan Mulheron
Chancellor, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis

Vos estis lux mundi is a set of directives on reporting abuse, neglect, or serious omissions of office on the part of bishops or religious superiors. A remaining issue is that the document does not provide directives for what is to be done and how the situation is to be resolved after the report is made and the investigation is completed.

If the Church is to continue investigating negligence or misconduct on the part of bishops, it would be better to create an investigating entity, composed of the relevant experts in law enforcement, canon, and civil law, who could conduct investigations. This could be supported through the episcopal conference, or through a voluntary association of bishops who decide to engage this group when an investigation is necessary. Such an entity would develop expertise, have a body of knowledge from which to draw, and could act consistently.

Because the investigation is ultimately under the jurisdiction of the Holy See, and the bishop is only entrusted with carrying it out on the local level, it can be difficult to manage expectations on all sides.

For example, the bishop may be directed by the Holy See to maintain strict confidentiality about the investigation, and be required to seek permission to make any public statement about it, while at the same time Vos estis states that the party reporting an allegation is free to speak publicly about the report.

The distance between the investigating bishop and the Holy See, not just physically but culturally, mean that the bishop can find himself in a difficult position -- he is trying to be faithful to the conflicting but legitimate expectations he can face from the Holy See, the person making the report, those claiming to have been harmed, the person accused of wrongdoing, and the faithful of the local community affected.

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Clarity needed on abuse of adults

Sara Larson
Executive director, Awake Milwaukee

While Vos estis is a significant step forward in the Church’s approach to addressing sexual abuse, its policies fall far short of the level of transparency and accountability needed in the Church today.

We have seen some United States bishops removed from office after Vos estis investigations, but any system that relies on bishops policing bishops is fundamentally flawed. This is especially true because ordinarily the bishop responsible for heading a specific investigation is one who is closely connected by geography. This problem was displayed most clearly when Cardinal Timothy Dolan was overseeing an investigation into Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and publicly commented about him, “I love the guy, he’s a good friend.”

I am blessed to walk closely with many abuse survivors, including those who have been devastated by clergy sexual abuse that took place during adulthood. The Church seems to be moving slowly in the direction of recognizing the gravity of this harm.

Vos estis does refer to “abuse of authority” and offer a definition of “vulnerable adult”—

“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.”

However, greater clarity is needed about situations in which an adult can be vulnerable to sexual abuse and how these reports should be handled in the Church. As it stands today, I hear over and over from survivors of adult abuse that their reports were ignored, dismissed, or covered up by their diocese, even if a priest abused them while serving as their spiritual director, confessor, counselor, or supervisor.

Finally, the entire Church could benefit from greater transparency from the Holy See about when Vos estis investigations are taking place and the results of those investigations. If diocesan priests are removed from active ministry while an investigation is taking place, shouldn’t bishops be held to that same standard?

The ‘lux mundi’ can’t hide under a bushel basket

Stephen White
Executive director, The Catholic Project, The Catholic University of America

Vos estis lux mundi was enacted to provide a reliable method for investigating and adjudicating allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct against bishops. But the ultimate success or failure of Vos estis—and of whatever revision or replacement follows it—will be measured not only by the law’s ability to reach just resolutions in such fraught cases.

The success of the law will also be measured by whether or not it restores a measure of credibility to the Church’s promise to hold bishops accountable.

In short, the law must work and also be seen to be working.

In this regard, the most significant challenge for the next iteration of Vos estis lux mundi may not a be found in any provision of the law itself, but in the lack of transparency surrounding the application and implementation of the law.

Currently, it is exceedingly difficult to get reliable information about the process as it operates. Basic questions remain unanswered, even after allegations that would seem to fall under Vos estis become public:

Who is currently under investigation? Which dioceses or sees are conducting investigations? Why did this case merit investigation but not a similar case? What conclusions if any resulted from a given investigation?

As often as not, at least in the U.S., these sorts of questions go unanswered. As often as not, it falls to local diocesan staff to rebuff inquiries from press and upset or angry members of the faithful in order to satisfy Rome’s preference for silence. Indifference toward transparency at the highest level breeds distrust at the local level.

It is understandable that the sorts of cases we are talking about demand discretion. The right to due process, like the right to defend one’s good name, applies to bishops as surely as it does to priests. It’s hard to overstate the importance of ensuring that these rights are protected. But discretion and transparency are not mutually exclusive. If anything, a lack of transparency—or uneven and inconsistent transparency—gives the impression that the whole process is somewhat arbitrary. An arbitrary process is as unreliable in meting justice to the guilty as it is in protecting the rights of due process for the accused, to say nothing of clearing the name of one falsely accused.

After three years, it is hard for most Catholic to know whether Vos estis has been working or not.

That will have to change if Vos estis lux mundi and its successor legislation are to restore the credibility that comes from accountability.

USCCB: Progress made, improvement always needed

Chieko Noguchi
Spokesperson, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Bishops pray during a meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

[Editor’s note: The Pillar requested from the USCCB input from staffers and bishops who work directly on issues related to Vos estis lux mundi. The bishops’ conference offered this statement in response.]

The USCCB is grateful to the Holy Father for addressing the issue of sexual abuse and bishop accountability for the global Catholic Church through Vos estis lux mundi.

When the motu proprio was issued in June 2019, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston (who was USCCB president at the time) stated: “In publishing this new law, which is applicable to the Church throughout the world, Pope Francis has made clear that protection and healing must reach all of God’s children,” and emphasized that it showed the Holy Father expects “swift and comprehensive progress,” as it came very shortly after the U.S. bishops gathered for a retreat at the suggestion of Pope Francis in response to allegations of sexual abuse and bishop accountability in 2018.

In promulgating Vos estis lux mundi, the Holy Father emphasized the ongoing work of the Church in keeping all children and the vulnerable safe, as the motu proprio addresses vital issues such as support for survivors, timely investigations, whistleblower protections, conflict of interest bans, reporting systems, and compliance with civil laws that now apply to the global Church.

Here in the United States, dioceses and eparchies have dealt with evolutionary shifts and changes during these past 20 years since the promulgation of the Charter, and Vos estis lux mundi is one of several instruments being used in addition to the ministry of accompaniment, and the safe environment policies and protocols enforced at the local level. The Conference recognizes that while much progress has been made, the painful experience of survivors of abuse calls us to continual improvement and prayer.

As the ad experimentum phase of Vos estis lux mundi approaches [its end], the USCCB is prepared to welcome the next phase and any accompanying directives for its implementation.

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