Catholics will mark on June 20 the one-year anniversary of the shocking revelations surrounding former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Particularly for Catholics in the United States, that scandal raised a host of deeply disturbing questions — many of which still need answers.
Pope Francis has given a significant response, with the promulgation this month of the apostolic letter Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are the Light of the World), but serious additional work remains to be done, both here in the U.S. and across the globe.
In February, the Pope concluded a Vatican summit on abuse with the world’s episcopal conference presidents by noting that we face “a universal problem, tragically present almost everywhere and affecting everyone.”
But the Holy Father also acknowledged that before Church leaders can lead a universal fight against abuse, they first must put their own house in order. “The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon,” he said, “becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the Church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility.”
The Pope then pledged concrete steps, and his apostolic letter offers some.
Vos Estis Lux Mundi (issued as a motu proprio, meaning a document promulgated by his own accord) is a worldwide set of norms to hold all clerics and members of Institutes of Consecrated Life or Societies of Apostolic Life accountable for delicts (violations) against the Sixth Commandment, including the abuse of authority to force sexual acts, sexual acts with a minor or a vulnerable person, child pornography, and covering up abuse.
There is much to praise in the way that the motu proprio:
- Applies to all clerics, including bishops and not just priests and deacons.
- Mandates the establishment of an easily implemented reporting system and provides protection for those making accusations.
- Recognizes victims of abuse within the Church are not only minors or vulnerable adults, but also adults who are subordinates within religious institutions, such as seminarians, religious and students.
- Reminds the world’s shepherds of the need to cooperate with civil laws.
- Relies upon a process that respects the special role of bishops in the Church when investigating allegations against brother bishops.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, described the papal letter as “a blessing that will empower the Church everywhere to bring predators to justice, no matter what rank they hold in the Church.”
Indeed, the new document paves the way for Church leaders in the U.S. to rebuild the momentum lost last fall when the Vatican put a halt to the U.S. bishops’ attempt to take action to hold themselves accountable for their own misdeeds, misconduct, cover-ups and failures of leadership.
The next step in that process will come in June, when the U.S. episcopal conference gathers again in Baltimore, hopefully to agree upon the measures they will take to implement the motu proprio and, even more so, to build upon it. This ongoing effort can draw on nearly two decades of experience in seeking to handle abuse cases primarily through the policies established in the 2002 Dallas Charter and the accompanying “Essential Norms.”
But both nationally and in the context of the worldwide clergy sexual-abuse crisis, the framework created by Pope Francis’ letter must be seen only as one major component in a universal and comprehensive response. That means making certain that the other pledges made by Francis are also implemented.
For example, every diocese should receive as soon as possible the planned vademecum (handbook) that will detail step-by-step the tasks and obligations of bishops in handling cases. The handbook will help dioceses still learning the proper handling of cases to avoid disastrous mistakes that have been made in other places.
At the same time, the Holy See should expedite the creation of the special task forces that were announced at the end of the February summit. Those task forces will guide dioceses facing obstacles in staffing and resources and work with bishops’ conferences to develop proper programs, recognizing that without this assistance many dioceses in different parts of the world simply cannot provide guidelines and training for abuse prevention and creating a safe environment.
If done properly and implemented fully, the safeguards, norms, handbooks and task forces could in time become a light to a world culture plagued by the abuse and exploitation of minors and vulnerable adults mentioned by Pope Francis at the summit.
Nonetheless, right now, important questions remain, such as:
- How will laypeople be involved in investigations, and what guarantees will there be that the process will be truly transparent?
- Will Church leaders take up serious studies of the root causes of the current crisis?
- And, finally, how can the Pope and the bishops assure Catholics that the new laws and procedures will actually prevent another catastrophe such as that caused by the unchecked crimes, abuses of power and depravities that have come to light around disgraced Theodore McCarrick? Put another way, will the motu proprio pass the “McCarrick Test”?
That last question is crucial for the Church as a whole, not just here in the United States, where McCarrick’s misdeeds occurred. That’s because Catholics around the world can ask a disturbingly similar question about the likes of Father Fernando Karadima of Chile or Auxiliary Bishop Juan José Pineda of Honduras or Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta of Argentina.
Still, Pope Francis’ motu proprio lays the groundwork for the concrete actions required to address the clergy sexual-abuse crisis more effectively than in the past. Now, it’s imperative that the U.S. bishops build on this “motu momentum” when they meet in Baltimore by filling in many of the remaining gaps and addressing as many unanswered questions as possible.
One year after the first public revelations of Theodore McCarrick’s shocking sexual misconduct, we can take heart from the clear determination of our shepherds to do just that. “Pope Francis expects swift and comprehensive progress,” Cardinal DiNardo said immediately after the motu proprio’s release. “For the Church in the United States, the task before us now is to establish whatever is necessary to ensure the effective implementation of the motu proprio.”