On May 7, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter entitled, “VOS ESTIS LUX MUNDI” (“You are the light of the world”) which outlines the Church’s first worldwide rules for reporting sexual abuse. On top of defining general procedures for handling allegations of abuse, the new decree mandates that investigations take place within 90 days of initial reporting, and orders protections for accusers and whistleblowers.
Photo: Akira Hojo on Unsplash
Although this is the most concrete step that the church has taken to address decades of scandal surrounding sexual abuse by the clergy and a culture of cover-ups and payoffs, many have criticized the law for its continuation of self-policing policy. The rules do not require allegations of assault to be reported to the police, and it also does not outline clear penalties for those found to be complicit in abuse or cover-ups.
Before the May 7th letter, there was no established system or course for dealing with sexual abuse. Issues were mostly handled internally, and responses could range depending on country and culture. This, unfortunately, has led to an overarching lack of accountability within the church. The scope of the problem was first brought into the spotlight famously by the Boston Globe. In their series of reports released in the early 2000s, the Globe outlined how the church went to extensive lengths to keep situations of abuse out of the courts and protect the identities of perpetrators. In many cases, guilty priests were simply assigned to a different position or placed on sick leave.
Rebuilding trust in the church has been an endeavor that Pope Francis has made central to his tenure. Some have supported his conduct so far, citing the implication of the new law, and others argue that it is not enough. However, many of Pope Francis’ actions have been inconsistent on this issue. In 2018, the Vatican blocked a vote on punitive measures for sexual misconduct proposed by American bishops at a conference in Baltimore. Recent scandals involving top church officials, including a former advisor to Pope Francis, have also not created the best look for the church. Despite this, the new protocol for cases of sexual abuse outlined in the May 7th letter is certainly a step in the right direction.
“The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful,” the Pope wrote. “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.”
Tristyn Surprenant is working toward her B.A. in Communications and Media Studies with minors in Writing and Digital Media Production at Emmanuel College in Boston, MA. She works as a research assistant and a writing tutor, and serves as the co-chair of a campus club that promotes female body-positive activism. She hopes to someday work in broadcast journalism.