Gesture Of The Pope With A Child © Vatican Media

Pope Francis: A More Stable Law to Fight Against the Abuse of Minors

This wants to be a concrete expression of the care and custody of the little ones, which has always been at the center of the multiple activities of the Church, especially in the parishes.

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Nicola Gori

(ZENIT News / Vatican City, 03.26.2023).- Among the most relevant novelties of the Motu Proprio, which confirms Vos Estis Lux Mundi, is the taking up of the new canonical criminal law — in force since December 2021 –, which identifies minors, that have habitually an “imperfect use of reason” and “vulnerable adults” as victims of sexual abuses by clergymen and members of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. 

This new rule, desired by Pope Francis, expresses: ”the special attention that the Church gives to the weakest and most vulnerable people, punishing in an exemplary manner, the violation of their dignity and freedom,” as Archbishop Filippo Iannone, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Interpretation of Legal Texts, affirms in this interview, originally published in Italian by L’Osservatore Romano.

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Question: What are the principal novelties introduced in the Motu Proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi, to foster their “better implementation” almost four years after their coming into force? 

Answer: Before mentioning the novelties, it seems useful to contextualize the Document being published today. The Motu Proprio “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” was promulgated by Pope Francis on May 7, 2019, and it came into force the following June 1. It is the result of the meeting presided over the Holy Father, which was held in the Vatican in February 2019, and which was attended by all the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences, to address the issue of the “protection of minors in the Church.”

As pointed out in the Preamble, the object of the Document is “to establish procedures , adopted at the universal level, directed to prevent and oppose the horrendous crimes of sexual abuses by those that assume ministries in the Church, primarily priests and consecrated persons,” crimes that betray the faithful’s trust, added the Pope. 

Precisely because the text introduced new “rules of procedure,” the Holy Father established a three-year experimental period, at the end of which a review would be carried out, in their case, to perfect and correct them for the purpose of achieving their improved implementation. This took place within the set deadline, with a broad consultation of the Episcopal Conferences, the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, the Apostolic Nuncios  and experts in the matter. The result of this consultation is the Motu Proprio published today. 

Question: The changes include a new clarification on the victims of abuses: before we spoke about minors and vulnerable persons. Now we speak of vulnerable adults and people who “habitually” have an “imperfect use of reason.” Can you tell us what this implies?   

Answer: Entering briefly in the most relevant novelties — leaving to one side those that have to do more specifically with procedural aspects, the Motu Proprio, regarding victims of sexual abuses by clergymen and members of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, takes up what is already established by the new Canonical Criminal

Law, in force since December 2021, and identifies them as minors, persons who habitually have an imperfect use of reason and vulnerable adults to whom the law guarantees particular attention. 

I believe this new rule, wanted by the Pope, demonstrates the special attention that the Church gives to the weakest and most vulnerable persons, whose freedom and dignity must be respected and protected by all, punishing exemplarily their violation. 

Question: The rules are applied now not only to clergymen and Religious, but also to “lay men who are or have been moderators of international associations of faithful recognized and erected by the Apostolic See.” What aspects does this novelty imply? 

Answer: Among the typified, the Document also includes that of Bishops and their associates — among whom are also included Superiors General of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life — who with their actions or omissions interfere or elude  the canonical and civil investigations against those guilty of the crimes afore mentioned (the so-called coverups and concealers). 

The Document now extends the crime also to those responsible for specific clerical associations and the supreme lay moderators of international associations of faithful recognized by the Apostolic See, which adopt the same attitudes. Obviously, all these persons are susceptible of being punished if they themselves commit sexual abuses. It is a clear and exacting reaffirmation of the duties of justice  and the courageous implementation  of the rules of Criminal Law in the government and life of ecclesial communities. 

Question: Specified also is that dioceses and eparchies must have “organizations or offices”  — previously called generically  “stable systems” — of easy access  to the public to receive complaints of abuse cases. What is the difference with the previous version?

Answer: I don’t think it can be considered a substantial novelty. The legislator in the new text, based on the experience of the last years, has specified that the “stable systems” mentioned in the previous text have taken, in reality, the form of organizations or offices. What is important is that they must be “easily accessible to the public,” to receive complaints of possible crimes. And this connotation is also reiterated in the Document in question.

Question: It is specified that it “corresponds to the Ordinary of the place where the events took place, to proceed in keeping with the law foreseen for a concrete case.” Can you explain what the role is of the Ordinaries?

Answer: When an Ordinary, a Bishop for example, receives a complaint that one of the crimes to which our Document refers to has been committed, he must activate the procedure foreseen by the Law with the due investigation. If the person denounced as the author of the crime is one of those enumerated in “Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” he will follow the procedure established by the Motu Proprio (he will inform the competent Dicastery of the Holy See, from which he will receive the due instructions); if, on the contrary, the person denounced is not found among these, then he will also activate the procedure, but in keeping with the common rules of Canon Law, which attribute to him the responsibility of the investigation and the eventual trial.

Question: Thanks to this Motu Proprio, what progress has been made in the last years  in the fight against abuses in the Church? 

Answer: The answer to this question would imply a detailed analysis of what has been achieved in every diocese in the implementation of the prescriptions of the Motu Proprio, which would be impossible here. What I would like to stress is that, following “Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” apart from the criminal aspects, good practices have been activated more or less everywhere, namely, those ways of acting that put at the center the littlest ones, promoting community co-responsibility, through the participation and formation of pastoral agents. And this as concrete expression of the care and custody of the littlest ones, who have always been at the center  of the Church’s many activities, especially in the parishes, as Pope Francis has stressed repeatedly.


Translation of the Italian original by ZENIT’s Editorial Director and, into English, by Virginia M. Forrester

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