Two years after it was issued, leaders say ‘Vos Estis’ is a step in the right direction

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Teresa Kettelkamp, member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

On May 9, 2019, the Vatican issued a stunningly detailed document that revised and clarified norms and procedures for holding bishops and religious superiors accountable to protect minors, members of religious orders and seminarians from abuse. The document, Vos Estis Lux Mundi (“You are the light of the world”) was issued “motu proprio,” on the pope’s own initiative, and lays out concrete measures to ensure bishops and religious superiors have a clear understanding of their obligations.

Experts on child protection within the Church said that nearly two years after the norms went into effect on June 1, 2019, the process is generally seen as effective, although there is need for vigilance and room for improvement.

“It’s important to realize these are norms, not a set of suggestions, and they carry the weight of law,” said Teresa Kettelkamp, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

“Addressing abuse is a journey and not a one-step solution. Vos Estis has raised awareness of the leadership’s responsibility to be held accountable,” she said.

‘A sore point for many in the Church’

Kettelkamp noted the relative speed with which the norms were devised. Pope Francis convened a meeting in February 2019 to discuss clergy abuse.

“Ours is a Church that acts in centuries,” she said. Yet, on hearing from survivors of abuse, advocates and his own advisers at the February meeting, Pope Francis named a task force that developed the norms by May. “The pope picked up on the issue and by June had norms in effect that articulate responsibilities and address transgressions by ordinaries,” she said. “There is a strong influence here by the Holy Spirit.”

Vos Estis makes heads of dioceses responsible to alert the proper Vatican authorities of all forms of suspected abuse, including the possession, distribution or creation of pornography involving a minor. It also requires all priests and religious to report suspected abuse or cover-ups and encourages any layperson to report through a reporting system or office that each diocese is now required to have in place.

The norms also stipulate procedures for the investigation of bishops, cardinals, patriarchs, religious superiors and all those who lead a diocese or particular church, including personal prelatures and personal ordinariates. Such leaders are accountable not only for suspected cases of committing abuse themselves, but also accusations of having interfered with, covered up or failed to address abuse accusations of which they were aware.

“Bishop accountability was a critical next step,” Kettelkamp said. “We hold our clergy and laypeople responsible. We should hold our leaders accountable.”

The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the so-called Dallas Charter adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2002, did not include steps for the accountability of bishops. “That was a sore point for many in the Church, including clergy,” Kettelkamp said.

“We expect our bishops to be good shepherds. We expect them to protect us, take care of us and be our Church fathers. When they don’t, Church credibility is lost,” she said.

“That’s where Vos Estis can play a redeeming role with respect to the Church,” she added.

Procedures in place

The norms provide some flexibility in recognition of local circumstances. Kettelkamp noted there are 112 episcopal conferences in the world, but not all have charters, such as the Dallas Charter. “You can’t take what you know in one diocese and apply it with a broad brush elsewhere. You have to let people adapt the key elements, such as education, victim assistance and reporting to civil authorities to the local culture,” she said.

Vos Estis sets out clear procedures for investigating the way a bishop complies with established norms and clarifies the consequences for noncompliance or cover-ups.

In the United States, Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner of Crookston, Minnesota, resigned April 13 following a 20-month investigation into concerns he mishandled allegations of clergy sexual abuse. That investigation was the first of a standing U.S. bishop under the provisions of Vos Estis.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops established the Catholic Bishops Abuse Reporting System in March 2020. It provides a website and toll-free phone number to report alleged abuse or cover-up by a Church leader. The system is operated by a third-party vendor and directs reports to local metropolitan bishops and their lay advisers.  Reports are reviewed, sent to the apostolic nuncio and then to the Vatican. Within 30 days, the Holy See determines if a formal investigation is warranted and authorizes the bishop to oversee it. Normally, the investigation includes qualified experts, some of whom are laypeople, and is completed within 90 days.

Those who make reports are given an access number and password to check the status of their report, but details about the number of reports and adherence to the established timeline are not publicly available.

Chieko Noguchi , director of public affairs for the USCCB, told Our Sunday Visitor that “the Holy See utilizes the metropolitan model to carry out Vos Estis Lux Mundi. Since the model derives its authority from the Holy See, the conference does not have an oversight role in this process. While the conference has helped facilitate some of the infrastructure for the third-party reporting service that is now in place and at the service of the metropolitans, the conference’s role has been limited to that, and we do not have data on the reporting service.”

Kettelkamp said she would like to see the investigatory process shared with the faithful. “For the credibility of the Church and its leadership, I think you need to be open and transparent. If things were more open, credibility would slowly come back to the Church.”

“Once the Vatican gives a metropolitan the go-ahead for an investigation, the people in the pew need information and also need to realize that the accused are innocent until proven guilty,” she said.

‘On the right track’

Deacon Bernie Nojadera  is executive director of the USCCB Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection. He said the Dallas Charter, the subsequent Essential Norms for Diocesan Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests and Deacons, and now Vos Estis are “examples of the evolutionary work taking place in the Church.”

Deacon Nojadera said Vos Estis lays out an “overarching directive of what needs to be in place in each diocese and eparchy to make sure that survivor-victims are the first and foremost priority.”

Vos Estis, the earlier documents of the U.S. bishops and the policies and the safeguarding procedures that have been well-established in each diocese “are a clear sign to our survivor-victims that we are listening and have heard what they have to say,” Deacon Nojadera said.

“The documents are but a foundation of where the Church can go with regard to healing. We realize we are dealing with evil, but it’s also a crime. The documents communicate that the Church is serious about this and that abuse is not going to be tolerated,” he added.

Vos Estis mandates protection of seminarians as well. Bishop James Massa , auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn, New York, and rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, said the document integrated well with the seminary’s existing “policies and procedures that ultimately seek to create the healthiest environment possible for priestly formation and theological learning.”

He said seminarians “have welcomed the Holy Father’s call for accountability and reform as expressed in Vos Estis. They recognize very keenly how they, as future priests, are called to be sources of healing and renewal within the Church.”

“The role of accountability in formation and the priority of caring for and defending those harmed certainly coincide with the priestly virtues and pastoral outreach that we seek to cultivate in each candidate for the priesthood. Most fundamentally, Vos Estis makes clear that everyone, at all levels of authority in the Church, is accountable to standards of right conduct and vigilant leadership that protects the most vulnerable among us.”

Kettelkamp said Vos Estis is an example of how Pope Francis listens and acts on issues that go to the hearts of people. “The fact that the boss, the Holy Father, is demanding accountability gives me hope that the Church is on the right track in addressing a complex issue. Vos Estis is the Holy Father’s message about what his expectations are for his leaders — that they demonstrate honesty, integrity and bring light in the darkness,” she said.

Beth Griffin writes from New York.