A meeting organised by the Diocese of Lille in France about clerical sexual abuse on May 2. (Photo by Philippe Huguen/AFP)
We are grateful to Pope Francis for attempting to address sexual abuse by clerics and its covering up in the Catholic Church as well as acknowledging the abuse of women religious by clerics. His motu proprio, a set of binding norms issued on May 7, for reporting clerical sexual abuse to the proper ecclesiastical authorities, should be seen as an expression of this attempt.
On first reading, the new laws appear path-breaking, especially the inclusion of vulnerable persons, insistence on reporting abuse and doing away with the binding secrecy. However, a motu proprio to deal with the issue falls short to a large extent.
The biggest drawback is the lack of concrete monitoring mechanisms. In 2011, the Vatican issued guidelines for putting in place policies at the level of national conferences of bishops to address sex abuse in their respective countries. A year was given for compliance. Was there a follow-up? Was compliance ensured? The answer lies in the fact that the bishops of Asia and Africa declared on the first day of the Meeting of Bishops on Sex Abuse in February that sex abuse of minors was not even their problem.
Pope Francis has put forth detailed guidelines for procedures, duties and timelines to address complaints of abuse at national, regional and diocesan levels. There is a suggestion that laypersons could be involved if the bishop so decides. It is not mandatory and this raises many problems. Unless the People of God, especially advocates who have been working with survivors, are involved in the redressal of cases, how is transparency ensured?
Pope Francis diagnosed clericalism as the root cause of abuse. The only way to address this would be to involve laypersons, especially advocates and survivors, at every level of the process to ensure total transparency to an extent of at least 50 percent participation. These persons should be chosen in consultation with lay faithful of proven credibility because bishops are likely to choose people who will do their bidding, as is the norm.
The new law states: “Any person assisting the metropolitan in the investigation is required to act impartially and must be free of conflicts of interest.” Is not every ordained minister in the Church likely to have a conflict of interest in this matter as he is interested in protecting the institution which gives him his power and prestige? Laypeople genuinely interested in the good of the People of God, the Church and its integrity and with working experience of the issue, are more likely to be impartial.
An institution cannot police itself. We have had a good example of this in India, where the Supreme Court appointed its judges to examine a complaint of abuse by its chief justice, who ended up giving him a clean chit, leading to widespread protests. In recent decades, we have witnessed the complete failure of the Catholic Church to deliver justice to victims. While Article 19 of the motu proprio suggests “compliance with state laws,” it does not make it compulsory. The lacunae can sabotage justice.
The Vatican continues to remain the final clearing house for decisions regarding punishments. Thus far this has proved a miserable failure and it is well known how files sent to dicasteries in the Vatican have been lost, cases have remained unresolved and abusers have continued in ministry, free to abuse. This negates the “zero tolerance” that survivors and advocates have been begging for to safeguard children and vulnerable persons from falling prey to abusers.
Despite the timelines mentioned, how can the same dicasteries that have failed so miserably deliver justice? Imposing zero tolerance, with the removal from ministry when an accusation is brought against a cleric, could motivate the system to speed up justice. It would also indicate the resolve of the Church to deal with the matter decisively. At the initial stage of the investigation, a false complaint can be detected. To endanger children on that excuse is unacceptable.
While the document covers religious women who are sex abusers, it says nothing about religious women who are abused by clerics. So far this has been glossed over as consensual, ignoring the reality of coercion and manipulation arising from the power difference between the two.
The acquittal on May 15 of Austrian priest Hermann Geissler, who had given a written admission of abusing a nun, is a stark example of everything that is wrong with the Vatican justice system.
While the document promises protection of complainants, those on the ground are fully aware that church officials have the power and their own devious way of “punishing” people. What are the concrete mechanisms to ensure this protection?
On the face of it, the document looks promising. But this would be subject to the fact that the officials putting it into practice are honest and God-fearing men of proven integrity. Experience indicates otherwise. Church officials have been well indoctrinated into believing that they are invincible and that they have to protect the institution at all costs. Is this new law going to change that?
Unless there are concrete monitoring mechanisms managed by laypersons of proven integrity, nothing will change in the Church. Pope Francis has tried to put new wine into old wineskins. His new motu proprio is a small Band-Aid on a gaping wound that weeps for integral healing.
Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences Office of Laity and a freelance writer and advocate for women's issues based in Mumbai.