Will new Vatican law set off a reporting "avalanche" on abuses and cover-ups?

With sexual abuse allegations now reaching into the episcopacy, the Vatican has struggled to define courses of action when bishops and cardinals are accused of committing sexual abuse or covering up such crimes for others. Today, Pope Francis issued an edict for all ordained and consecrated within the Catholic Church requiring reporting on any abuse, if need be directly to the Vatican itself. Local dioceses will also be required to create reporting systems and get the laity involved in them:

Pope Francis introduced sweeping changes in Catholic Church law on Thursday to hold bishops accountable for sexual abuse or covering it up, making reporting obligatory for clerics and allowing anyone to complain directly to the Vatican if needed.

A papal decree, which covers abuse of both children and adults, also obliges every Catholic diocese in the world to set up simple and accessible reporting systems and encourages local churches to involve lay experts in investigations. …

It sets time limits for local investigations and the Vatican’s response to them and allows for retroactive reporting.

It also says bishops with conflicts of interest should recuse themselves from investigations and that they can also be held accountable for abuse of power in sexual relations with adults.

The motu proprio, entitled Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are the Light of the World), covers a wide range of malfeasance — sexual abuse of minors, sexual abuse of vulnerable people, child pornography, and so on. It raises the age of majority in such cases from 16 to 18, and gives a relatively succinct process for reporting and investigating. Much of this has been covered with the laity through such processes as VIRTUS for volunteer ministries, but this escalates it to legal status with nuns, brothers, and the ordained — all the way to the Vatican itself.

The most significant part of the motu proprio is its Title II — Provisions Concerning Bishops and Their Equivalents. This sets out formally for the first time the processes to be used when bishops are accused of sexual misconduct. Such reports have to go to the metropolitan bishop (archbishop) in the jurisdiction, or if it involves the metropolitan, and also directly to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The new law encourages metropolitans to seek out lay experts for any investigations and lays out some basic whistleblower protections.

How effective will this be? Much of Vos Estis Lux Mundi consists of basic organizational crisis procedures, similar to what one might find in a corporate sexual-harassment process. In fact, most of it is just plain common sense, which underscores how overdue this motu proprio is. It does not spell out any new forms of punishment for those found to have engaged in sexual misconduct or for those who cover it up. That might be a bit too ambiguous for some critics, especially given Francis’ inconsistent approach, but penalties do already exist in canon law in both cases.

Still, establishing these procedures might allow for an “avalanche” of new reporting, the Washington Post notes:

The law makes the world’s 415,000 Catholic priests and 660,000 religious sisters mandated reporters. That means they are required to inform church authorities when they learn or have “well-founded motives to believe” that a cleric or sister has engaged in sexual abuse of a minor, sexual misconduct with an adult, possession of child pornography — or that a superior has covered up any of those crimes.

The law doesn’t require them to report to police. The Vatican has long argued that doing so could endanger the church in places where Catholics are a persecuted minority. But it does for the first time put into universal church law that they must obey civil reporting requirements where they live, and that their obligation to report to the church in no way interferes with that.

If it is implemented fully, the Vatican could well see an avalanche of abuse and cover-up reports in the coming years. Since the law is procedural and not criminal in nature, it can be applied retroactively, meaning priests and nuns are now required to report even old cases of sexual wrongdoing and cover-ups — and enjoy whistleblower protections for doing so.

Previously such reporting was left up to the conscience of individual priests and nuns. Now it is church law. There are no punitive measures foreseen if they fail to report, and similarly there are no sanctions foreseen if dioceses, for example, fail to comply. But bishops and religious superiors could be accused of cover-up or negligence if they fail to implement the provisions, or retaliate against priests and nuns who make reports.

At this point one would hope that the skeletons would have all exited the closet, but of course that’s not the case. State attorneys general have opened up their own investigations after the success in Pennsylvania in exposing hundreds of abusers; we can expect to hear a lot more over the next couple of years from those processes. The Vatican has made it possible to get ahead of that curve with this new law, or at least to encourage people in the local dioceses to start catching up.

At this point, the pontiff and the Vatican Curia must have belatedly realized that it’s better to finally rip off the bandage as fast as possible than go through a slow torture over several decades. And that’s a step long overdue, too.