Pope Francis promulgates an updated version of the Church’s norms to prevent and counter sexual abuse against minors and vulnerable adults, harmonizing various legislative reforms introduced since 2019 and extending the norms to cover lay leaders of international associations of the faithful recognized by the Holy See.
Following nearly four years of experimentation and extensive consultation with bishops and the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, Pope Francis has definitively promulgated procedures to prevent and counter sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
The updated version of the Motu Proprio Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”) was published on Saturday, 25 March, and enters into force on 30 April. It replaces the previous version published in May 2019, and confirms the Church’s desire to continue to combat crimes of sexual abuse.
Leaders of lay associations
The most significant change introduced in the new version of the normative text concerns the provisions in “Title ii ” which lay out the responsibilities of bishops, religious superiors, and clerics in charge of a particular Church or Prelature.
The updated text specifies that “the lay faithful who are or have been moderators of international associations of the faithful recognized or created by the Apostolic See [are responsible] for acts committed” while they were in office.
Various other modifications were introduced to harmonize the procedural text against abuse with other normative reforms introduced between 2019 and the present. These include the revision of the Motu Proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (norms amended in 2021), changes made to Book vi of the Code of Canon Law (2021 reform), and the new Constitution on the Roman Curia Praedicate Evangelium (promulgated in 2022).
Vulnerable adults and abuse reporting
One notable modification regards the inclusion of “vulnerable” adults in the normative text.
The previous version referred to “sexual acts with a minor or a vulnerable person”. However, the updated text speaks of “a crime against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue committed with a minor, or with a person who habitually has an imperfect use of reason, or with a vulnerable adult.”
Another change concerns the protection of the person who submits a report of alleged abuse.
Whereas the earlier text stated that no constraint of silence may be imposed on the person who reports alleged abuse, this protection has now been extended to “the person who claims to have been offended and those who were witnesses.”
Additionally, the text strengthens calls to safeguard “the legitimate protection of the good name and privacy of all persons involved,” as well as the presumption of innocence for those who are under investigation during the period in which determinations of responsibility are underway.
The updated version of Vos estis lux mundi also specifies that dioceses and eparchies must operate an “organisation or office” (the earlier version spoke in general about a “stable system”) which is easily accessible to the public in order to receive reports of cases of abuse.
It also clarifies that the task of proceeding with the investigation lies under the responsibility of the bishop or Ordinary of the place where the reported events allegedly took place.
Abuse of authority
The procedures introduced in 2019 set out precise guidelines on how to deal with reports of abuse and ensure that bishops and religious superiors — now including lay people with responsibility for international associations — are held accountable and are obliged through a universally established legal precept to report abuse of which they have become aware.
The document includes, and continues to include, not only abuse and violence against children and vulnerable adults, but also covers sexual violence and harassment resulting from the abuse of authority.
Therefore, the obligation to report also includes cases of violence against religious women by clerics, as well as cases of harassment of adult seminarians or novices.