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The Pope Takes a Swing Against Sex Abuse

My friend and I were at Citi Field on a cool Friday evening. He is not religious, but the Mets were ahead 8-0 in the first inning, and he was ready to believe in miracles. He was in a good mood. Then, out of the blue, he asked me, “What about the Vatican’s new guidelines against sexual abuse? Shouldn’t they have just one simple rule, namely, ‘call 911’?”

He was referring to the “Vos estis lux mundi” (You Are the Light of the World), Pope Francis’ “motu proprio,” or edict, establishing norms for the universal Church against sexual abusers or those who cover up such crimes. It establishes procedures similar to those put in place in the United States by the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002.

For almost a year now, our secular press has been commenting on the grand jury report from Pennsylvania and on other reports of sexual abuse by clergy. Usually, the press fails to note two important facts.

First, the lists of accused priests covers many decades. For example, in February when the Diocese of Brooklyn published a list of credibly accused clergy, the headline in The Tablet was “Diocese of Brooklyn Releases Names of Credibly Accused Clergy,” and the subhead read, “Comprehensive List Dates Back 166 Years.” But many newspapers didn’t mention that detail, and so readers were led to believe that the 108 priests on the list were involved in recent cases.

Second, the secular press rarely mentions that the Dallas Chapter, the set of rules established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 for the protection of children, is actually working. Since then, there have been only two cases of priests in active ministry in the Diocese of Brooklyn credibly accused of sexual abuse.

Now the Holy Father’s motu proprio establishes rules for the universal Church that are similar to those in the Dallas Charter. It also set deadlines for their implementation. It is indeed a watershed moment in the efforts to confront the horrors of sexual abuse in the Church.

Nobody thinks that this will be an easy or speedy process. But the motu propio provides reason for hope. It mandates that priests and women religious report cases of abuse and cover-up to their superiors, and sets norms to protect whistleblowers and to inform the victims of the investigations’ results.

Some complain that the document doesn’t do enough to deal with bishops implicated in the cover-up of crimes. Others, like my friend at Citi Field, complain that the new guidelines don’t put forward a simple rule that would apply to every diocese of the world.

I told my friend that the world is a complicated place. Here in the Diocese of Brooklyn, the Church informs local authorities of any accusation it receives. But the solution is not that simple in every country. The American justice system isn’t perfect, but it is one of the best in the world. Would you trust the justice system of countries where Catholics are persecuted to be fair in any case involving a priest?

The papal motu proprio sets the tone and the deadlines. Now the bishops in each country should do their part.

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