Pope Francis has revised and clarified norms and procedures for holding bishops and religious superiors accountable in protecting minors as well as in protecting members of religious orders and seminarians from abuse.
The new juridical instrument is meant to help bishops and religious leaders around the world clearly understand their duties and Church law, underlining how they are ultimately responsible for proper governance and protecting those entrusted to their care.
For this reason, the new document establishes a clearer set of universal procedures for reporting suspected abuse, carrying out initial investigations and protecting victims and whistleblowers.
The new document, given “motu proprio,” on the Pope’s own initiative, was titled “Vos estis lux mundi” (“You are the light of the world”), based on a verse from the Gospel of St. Matthew (5:14).
“The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful,” the Pope said in the document, released by the Vatican May 9.
The norms go into effect June 1.
In order to stop all forms of abuse from ever happening again, not only is “a continuous and profound conversion of hearts” necessary, there must be “concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church,” he wrote.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, said the new norms ascribe a new role to heads of dioceses by making them responsible for alerting the proper Vatican authorities of all forms of suspected abuse, including the possession, distribution or creation of pornography involving a minor.
He told Vatican News May 9 that the norms respond to Pope Francis’ continued insistence for concrete and effective measures to ensure bishops and religious superiors have a very clear understanding of what their obligations are and what they should and should not do when it comes to safeguarding.
It also requires all priests and religious to report suspected abuse or cover-ups and encourages any layperson to report through a now-mandated reporting “system” or office in each diocese.
How the office or “system” works will be up to each diocese, but “the idea is that anyone who has suffered abuse can have recourse to the local Church, while being assured they will be well received, protected from retaliation, and that their reports will be treated with the utmost seriousness,” Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication, told Vatican News.
Last August Bishop W. Shawn McKnight issued a protocol to govern what would happen if an accusation is made against a sitting bishop of the Diocese. That protocol is in alignment with the new norms.
Since his installation as Jefferson City’s fourth bishop in February 2018, Bishop McKnight has spoken emphatically about the need for clear, universal policies and procedures to be adopted Church-wide regarding the handling of allegations of abuse by members of the clergy.
“I am grateful Pope Francis has provided benchmarks and clarity so that we can assure universal accountability and transparency,” said Bishop McKnight.
He has also emphasized to his fellow U.S. Catholic bishops that they had authority to put such safeguards into effect their dioceses while the Vatican worked on codifying universal norms.
“We are constantly being called to be light in the darkness and vigorously protect the safety and wellbeing of the young and vulnerable people God places in our care for the sake of building up His Kingdom,” he said.
Bishop McKnight renewed his commitment to providing the resources, personnel and direction to continue doing whatever else is necessary to protect young people and help heal the wounds caused by abuse of power and trust.
The new norms now stipulate:
If he considers an accusation is unfounded, the papal nuncio is informed. The Vatican will have 30 days to respond to the request and the bishop sends a status report to the Vatican every 30 days.
The document is a follow-up to Pope Francis’ 2016 document, “As a Loving Mother,” on transparency and accountability of bishops and religious superiors.
The two documents together are meant to correct what had been a lack of or unclear procedures for investigating the way a bishop complies with already established norms against abuse and clearly expressing the consequences of noncompliance or cover-ups.