Pope Francis' decree on sex abuse reporting ignores role of lay Catholics

(COMMENTARY) A new decree by Pope Francis that now requires priests and nuns to report cases of abuse by other clergy — including any cover-ups by superiors such as a local bishop — is long overdue. It’s so long overdue that one has to wonder why this wasn’t something put into practice by the church years ago. 

Nonetheless, the pope’s attempt to finally create some accountability and transparency is well intentioned, although misguided given that it largely ignores the role of laypeople and relies primarily on clergy self-policing, something sex abuse victims and their families have long decried as part of the problem.

The new church law — known as Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are the Light of the World) — announced Thursday doesn’t require clergy to report these cases to civil authorities such as the local police. That’s a big mistake. The primary responsibility of anyone who witnesses a crime is to alert authorities. In the case of predator priests, the Vatican has long argued that involving civil authorities could potentially endanger the lives of church officials in places where Roman Catholics are persecuted. 

As a result, this papal decree gives bishops — and men above them like archbishops — lots of power and appears to be a contradiction of those same claims of clericalism the pope and his supporters in the Roman curia largely pointed to last year when confronted with allegations of sex abuse. The practice of policing oneself hasn’t worked well in the past for the church or any large secular or religious organization.

“People must know that bishops are at the service of the people,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s sex crimes prosecutor, told The Associated Press. “They are not above the law, and if they do wrong, they must be reported.”

The decree now requires priests and nuns to report allegations in which there are “well-founded motives to believe” that another cleric or sister has engaged in the following crimes: sexual abuse of a minor, improper sexual relations with an adult, the viewing and distribution of child porn or that a superior (such as a bishop) has covered up any of these aforementioned crimes.

These measures are a result of the behavior of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was laicized earlier this year after he was revealed to being a serial predator. Would the measures now in place have potentially been able to stop McCarrick from committing crimes for decades? Maybe. It seems unlikely in a top-down culture. McCarrick, for instance, was a leading voice in the church’s 2002 response to the sexual abuse crisis in Boston and an architect of the Dallas Charter.  

Indeed, this new decree is meant to get rid of men like McCarrick. The ex-cardinal was able to rise up the church ranks despite a series of credible allegations of sexual misconduct lodged against him. After the allegations became public, the pope defrocked McCarrick — the Catholic church’s equivalent of the death penalty — after it was determined by the Holy See that the former cardinal of Washington, D.C. had sexually abused minors and adult seminarians.

It should be noted that a review board at the Archdiocese of New York substantiated cases of abuse against McCarrick by a former altar boy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral who reported two incidents of abuse going as far back as 1971 and ‘72. Without involvement by Catholics outside the hierarchy, the McCarrick story may have never been made public.

Catholic News Agency reported that the decree establishes the “metropolitan model” for the investigation of accusations against bishops and their equivalents, as proposed by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago at the November meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference and at the Vatican’s February summit. The metropolitan archbishop would conduct the probe, with help from laypeople if he chooses to involve them. In another example of the limitations of this new law, someone like McCarrick — had he still been in power — would be responsible for overseeing an investigation.

U.S. bishops will convene again in Baltimore for a four-day summit starting June 11. That meeting will certainly address this new measure and other ways American bishops are trying to regain credibility after the “Uncle Ted” case.

If local authorities can’t be involved, then the idea of a lay board would be a better route to take. It would create both accountability and counter accusations of clericalism. Certainly, someone must have come up with such a plan in the past. In fact, that was the plan many American bishops had endorsed — until Archbishop Christophe Pierre, who serves as papal nuncio to the U.S., rejected that possibility last year.  

Furthermore, this move is likely to include the public announcement of more abuse allegations, according to Church Militant, a conservative Catholic news website. The site notes that now that priests and nuns are allowed to report up the food chain, there will likely be an increase in cases made public regarding past abuse and cover-ups. Since the pope’s edict is procedural (and not criminal), it can be applied retroactively. That means old cases, previously undisclosed to the public or never reported, will be brought to light — with priests and nuns now enjoying whistleblower protections.

This move by Francis comes after last summer’s publication by a Pennsylvania grand jury report that highlighted decades of past abuse. That was followed up by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano’s bombshell letter about higher-ups at the Vatican — allegedly even including Francis himself — conspiring to cover up McCarrick's past crimes.

This new law isn’t all bad. The provision that includes the reporting of sex crimes involving adults — highlighted recently by the sexual abuse of nuns in India by superiors — is an admission that abuse isn’t limited to minors.

What else might we learn now that priests and nuns are allowed to do the right thing? It’s difficult to know. Archbishops will hold a lot of the power within their geographic jurisdictions. It will be up to them to do the right thing. Many likely will. What if there are others like McCarrick calling the shots? That’s a real question the church must ask itself as it attempts to restore faith and credibility with Catholics around the world.