Pope Francis’ Abuse Guidelines

I finally looked at the actual guidelines, contained in an “apostolic letter” from Pope Francis called “VOS ESTIS LUX MUNDI.” While the mainstream press praised this, it is grossly inadequate.


Pope Francis sets the stage with a preamble. God is “offended” by sex abuse, and Pope Francis prescribes the remedy:

“In order that these phenomena, in all their forms, never happen again, a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church, so that personal sanctity and moral commitment can contribute to promoting the full credibility of the Gospel message and the effectiveness of the Church’s mission. This becomes possible only with the grace of the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts, as we must always keep in mind the words of Jesus: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).”

First, everyone in the Church – both clergy and laity – has to have a heartfelt conversion. This implies that they don’t already believe that sex abuse is wrong – a highly dubious assumption. While Pope Francis insists everyone needs a change of heart, he says nothing about subsequent changes of behavior. Perhaps he believes the Holy Spirit will take care of that. In fact, Pope Francis claims that without the explicit aid of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, you can’t do anything to prevent sex abuse: “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

If that’s the case, you would expect that non-believers like Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc., would have a far worse abuse problem than the Catholic Church, whose clergy are purportedly married to Christ. But in fact exactly the opposite is the case; “infidels” are far less likely to abuse children. Pope Francis and the Holy Spirit owe us an explanation. If Christians can’t do anything without Christ, does that mean He was assisting all those priestly child abusers?

In any case, Pope Francis is unwilling to accept accountability for the Church’s child abuse problem, and leaves Jesus holding the bag. But the pope nonetheless issues guidelines, consisting of 19 articles.

Article 1- “Scope of Application”

First, he defines the crimes of abuse:

i. forcing someone, by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts;


ii. performing sexual acts with a minor or a vulnerable person;


iii. the production, exhibition, possession or distribution, including by electronic means, of child pornography, as well as by the recruitment of or inducement of a minor or a vulnerable person to participate in pornographic exhibitions;

He goes on to clarify the meaning of “minor,” “vulnerable person,” and “child pornography.” He does not define prohibited “sex acts.” It is up to each diocese to do so. It is not at all obvious if fondling or groping is considered a sex act, though this is one of the most common crimes.


The next several articles involve reporting. First, it is important to note that the entire discussion involves reports from the dioceses to the Vatican. Reports to civil authorities are not discussed. In fact, unless reports to civil authorities are required by law, they are discouraged, if not prohibited. Thus Article 5 §2 states : “The good name and the privacy of the persons involved, as well as the confidentiality of their personal data, shall be protected.”

Since you can’t report a crime to authorities without violating the privacy of the persons involved and without harming “the good name” of the alleged offender, this appears to rule out reports to civil authorities. The final section, Article 19, directs the dioceses to obey any local laws requiring such reports, thus overriding the Vatican’s default procedure.

Equally important, there is no requirement to inform the laity about alleged crimes and offenders, even if they are deemed credible. In fact, since such notification by definition involves both violations of privacy and of the good name of the alleged offender, public notification seems to be prohibited. Simply providing the laity with the name of alleged abusers, normally considered a minimal requirement for transparency, violates this article.


All investigations are conducted solely by the local dioceses (though they may use outside help). The only requirements imposed by the Vatican involve the duration of such investigations – a maximum of 90 days. Furthermore, status reports are required every 30 days, which places an emphasis on speed. Given that crimes are often reported many years after they occur, when relevant witnesses may be dispersed, this seems like an arbitrary deadline. The suggested process encourages speed rather than completeness, especially since Church investigators lack expertise and possibly resources as well. There is a provision for the dioceses to petition for an extension of time. This mitigates the problem, though dioceses will probably hesitate to file such appeals very often.

The guidelines say little or nothing about the quality or completeness of investigations. Given the Church’s history of gathering evidence for trials, this is inadequate. The problem is compounded by a lack of expertise and a tight deadline.


Remarkably, nothing is said about penalties. There are no guidelines. The guidelines are primarily concerned with the investigation of crimes and the communication of such information to the Vatican. But absolutely nothing is said concerning the treatment of those found guilty. In fact, it is not clear whether it is left to the diocese to establish guilt or innocence. Nothing at all is said about punishing offenders. It is hard to conceive of laws that do not include any penalties for their violation, but that is effectively what these guidelines do.

Much has been made of Article 4 which protects whistleblowers, prohibiting “retaliation or discrimination as a consequence of having submitted a report.” This is indeed praiseworthy, and represents a radical change of policy. Traditionally, whistleblowers were treated more harshly than sex offenders. But keep in mind that no penalty is associated with retaliating against whistleblowers. I think it likely that any whistleblower embarrassing the Church will be subject to some form of persecution, and that punishments for violating Article 4 are likely to be a slap on the wrist. We’ll see.

Failure to specify penalties means the guidelines lack teeth. It also invites capricious behavior by those pronouncing judgment. It undermines basic principles of justice.


Given that the Vatican has been studying this problem for decades, and that Pope Francis appointed a special papal commission seven years ago to establish such guidelines, this is an embarrassing effort. Any civil jurisdiction would provide a far better model for handling abuse cases. The present guidelines make the Vatican unaccountable. Furthermore, they specify no punishment for offenders. As Pope Francis’ preamble suggests, the guidelines rely almost entirely on the workings of the Holy Spirit.


Comments powered by CComment