Pope Francis has officially announced new and permanent updates to the Vatican City laws addressing sex abuse and reporting in the Catholic Church.
This announcement, which was issued in the form of a "motu proprio" -- which itself is a document that is directly handled and written by the pope himself on his own initiative -- was published this past Friday in Italian, with very little of the standard pompous fanfare that normally goes along with anything regarding papal documents of this significance.
Back in 2019, Pope Francis put out the first edition of "Vos estis lux mundi," which was meant to be an "experimental" group of legal guidelines for the reporting of any sex abuse cases within the Catholic Church, to include the reporting of bishops. Many abuse victims stated, even at that time, that such guidelines were not at all going "far enough," sounding the call for "zero tolerance" policies against the clergy standing accused.
In the wake of the Pope holding a four-day long summit about sex abuse in 2019, victims made complaints that very little had actually been accomplished and that practical applications of this "vos estis" reported outright failed to cover groups labeled as "vulnerable adults." Such a definition, as explained by canonists, still sits as far too ambiguous under this new law. Are adults counted as under spiritual direction or obedience to clergy, are seminarians or nuns thought to be considered "vulnerable?" To go along with this, the new law includes lay-led consecrated groups such as Opus Dei or Regnum Christi, the second of which has been stuck in the middle of a close to forty-year scandal spawned by the group's founder.
In the wake of the public scandal and the imprisonment of Cardinal George Pell, where trial by media worked an active role only to have the High Court step in and acquit him -- balancing "zero tolerance" with equal application of the law -- including the use of assumed innocence prior to being proven guilty -- is all dealt with via this new and permanent version published by the Vatican on Friday.
Michael J. Mazza -- a canonist and civil lawyer that graduated from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and who specializes in defamation actions and advocacy for clerics, religious and laity -- spoke out to give his assessment of these newly announced laws by quickly pointing out the expanded focus on ensuring the rule of law is upheld both expediently and equally.
"I am very pleased to see the right to reputation is now specifically mentioned, along with respect for the presumption of innocence, in Article 5 §2 and Article 13 §7. But the proof will be in the pudding," stated Mazza in a Sunday message. "It will be interesting to see if this very clear direction from the Holy See will have an impact on the odious — but very common — practice in the USA of publishing the names of “credibly accused” clerics before any penal process has occurred. This is often done in the name of “transparency,” but it wreaks an unjust, serious, and lasting harm to the reputation of accused clerics."
Additionally, it seems as though the pope's new law seeks to protect the confidentiality of conversations that take place outside the seal of confession. "The new VELM contains a slight but potentially significant change in the reporting obligations," highlighted Mazza. "Now defined in terms such that anything revealed to a cleric “in the internal forum” is excepted from the reporting requirement (i.e., broader than the seal of the confessional, but no longer specifically referenced to canon 1548 §2)."
When speaking about crimes of a more sexual nature, however, the Pope has made it quite clear that civil law must be considered above that of canon law-- at all stages be it reporting, investigating, trying or conviction.