Thursday, May 09, 2019

Seeking "Light," Pope Goes "Concrete": Global Norms Aim to Boost Bishops' Accountability for Abuse – And, Finally, Cover-Ups

Almost three months since February's unprecedented global abuse summit was widely judged to have ended more with a whimper than a bang in terms of its pledged "concrete" outcomes, the "missing piece" for most Western observers has arrived: a formal, mandatory, worldwide means of investigating bishops accused of sexual misconduct – and, far more critically, those alleged to have "interfere[d] with" bringing perpetrators to justice.

At Roman Noon this Thursday, the Pope published Vos estis lux mundi – "You are the light of the world" – an 11-page motu proprio that, beyond setting universal procedures to enhance the accountability of prelates, establishes a universal requirement for clergy and religious to report suspected abuse, as well as underscoring the church's responsibility to protect a person making an allegation from any sort of "prejudice, retaliation or discrimination." In another key first, the new text equates sexual acts coerced "through abuse of authority" – regardless of a victim's age – with the abuse of a minor or "vulnerable person."

Signed by Francis on Tuesday (7 May), the new norms are effective as of June 1st, and will be in force for an ad experimentum (provisional) period of three years to allow for fine-tuning before being made permanent.

While the US bishops were only alerted late Wednesday to an unspecified statement coming later today from their President, Houston's Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, as the bench was slated to vote on several procedural texts related to the abuse crisis at its mid-June plenary in Baltimore, this morning's release of new universal law – which, by definition, supersedes any local policy – has likely (and yet again) short-circuited much of the conference's efforts.

Accordingly, early indications are that much of the June 11-14 meeting's agenda will now shift to a focus on Vos estis' implementation amid the circumstances and context of the Stateside church. On a related front, with the meeting now but a month away, it bears noting that the latest drafts of the USCCB proposals – which the bench's leadership reviewed with Vatican officials during an Easter Week mini-summit – have not been circulated of yet to the membership, ostensibly with an eye to today's release and the needed adjustments in its wake.

Prior to today's rollout, Whispers obtained an advance copy of Vos estis. Among other key points in the text:
  • First, and above all, the requirements to report misconduct are twofold: here, echoing the principle voiced by the CDF's Archbishop Charles Scicluna at the summit's close, cases of abuse are treated as equally egregious to "conduct carried out by [bishops and religious superiors] consisting of actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations, whether administrative or criminal, against a cleric or religious regarding" crimes of abuse;
  • In a significant win for Chicago's Cardinal Blase Cupich (who advocated for the plan at the summit), the norms provide that the oversight of investigations by the metropolitan of an accused prelate is the standard option, unless the relevant Curial office (e.g. the Congregations for Bishops or, for Eastern hierarchs, the Oriental Churches) should determine otherwise. At the same time, however – reflecting the original USCCB proposal for a lay board to conduct investigations – a designated metropolitan may "make use of other persons" to assist in the task, with local bishops conferences given input on who they could be;
  • In a fresh provision emphasizing the import of the cases – and a premium on speed in handling them – the document stipulates that the Holy See (through the relevant congregation) must provide guidance on a local investigation (thus allowing it to proceed) within 30 days. All told, an investigation must be completed within 90 days, unless a specific exception is made;
  • Enshrining a principle that at least some in Rome viewed as foreign even as the 2002 crisis erupted in the States, Vos estis makes clear that the canonical procedures newly in force place no inhibition on the mandate to follow the applicable civil laws in each place, "particularly those concerning any reporting obligations to the civil authorities."
  • All that said, while the document lays out procedures for investigations, Francis conspicuously refrains from establishing potential penalties for prelates found culpable for the alleged acts. Here, it remains to be seen whether Vos estis will supplement or supplant Come una madre amarevole ("As a loving mother"), the pontiff's initial accountability norms from 2016, which explicitly state the possibility of a bishop's removal from office in cases of grave negligence.
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Even as some US instances might strike some folks as rife for an early use of the new norms, for all practical purposes, their first Stateside test-case is already in the books: last year's delegation by Rome of Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore to conduct an investigation of one of his suffragans, Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, following multiple reports of sexual harassment of adults by the West Virginia prelate, whose resignation was taken days after he reached the retirement age of 75.

After a probe that stretched over six months – far longer than expected – in March, Lori announced Bransfield's preliminary suspension from ministry with the Vatican's implicit consent.

A final judgment on the case remains pending in Rome; the Baltimore prelate remains as apostolic administrator of West Virginia's statewide diocese pending the appointment of Bransfield's successor.