What is Vos Estis, and how is it Related to the Crisis in the Church?

By Jim Cauley
Awake Leadership Team

On May 9, 2019, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter called Vos Estis Lux Mundi, which translates as “You are the Light of the World.” The letter creates new Church law around sexual abuse for the worldwide Church—the Roman Catholic Church and the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches.

Pope Francis declared that these “procedures be universally adopted to prevent and combat these crimes that betray the trust of the faithful.” 

What does Vos Estis do?

Vos Estis creates norms applicable to all priests, deacons, and religious men and women, including all bishops. The new norms apply to canonical crimes of:

  • sexual abuse of minors under 18 years of age; 
  • sexual abuse of any person, when committed by violence, threat, or abuse of authority;
  • sexual abuse of vulnerable persons, defined as “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offence;”
  • the production, exhibition, possession, or distribution of child pornography;
  • the recruitment of a minor or a vulnerable person to participate in pornographic exhibitions.

The norms mandate the reporting of abuse, prohibit destruction of evidence and retaliation against people submitting reports, and mandate impartial investigations of reports of abuse. Every diocese in the world must establish a system for reporting all claims by June 1, 2020. 

Why was Vos Estis issued now?

Reports by journalists in 2018 revealed abuse and leadership failures related to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and Bishop Michael Bransfield. The 2002 Dallas Charter, established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to protect children from sexual abuse, did not address misconduct by bishops. The USCCB was considering policies related to these issues when Pope Francis halted that action pending a February 2019 summit in Rome. That summit heard evidence of the abuse of children, men, and women throughout the world and sought to address the abuse crisis in the global church. Vos Estis was one result of the summit. 

How are bishops held accountable?

Vos Estis adopts a “metropolitan model” for investigating charges against bishops. Allegations against a bishop—related either to abuse or the mishandling of abuse claims—are sent to an archbishop for the region, known as the “metropolitan,” and to the appropriate “dicastery” or department in Rome. If charges are made against the metropolitan, then the charge is sent to Rome and to the senior suffragan bishop for the region. The appropriate authority in Rome has 30 days to issue instructions allowing the metropolitan or another designated authority to investigate the charges. Reports on investigations must be submitted every 30 days and the investigation completed in 90 days. 

Are lay people involved?

Vos Estis allows, but does not require, the creation of panels of lay experts, such as law enforcement professionals, lawyers, former prosecutors, psychologists, teachers, and counselors, to be involved in the investigations. Other lay experts may be used. Lay review boards are not required under these new norms for investigating bishops.

How are victims treated?

These norms require Church authorities to treat victims and their families with dignity and respect, to make sure they are welcomed, listened to, and supported, including through medical, psychological, and spiritual assistance. Their good names must be protected.

Is reporting to civil authorities required?

Vos Estis does not introduce a universal requirement for reporting abuse allegations to civil authorities. But churches are still required to follow any local civil laws that mandate reporting abuse.

What else is missing?

Vos Estis does not directly address improper sexual relations between clergy and congregants, and does not require truly independent and effective lay review boards. It trusts bishops to police each other.

When does this take effect?

The new norms went into effect on June 1, 2019, for a three-year trial period. As of January 2020, investigations of two U.S. bishops—Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, Minnesota, and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York—have been launched under Vos Estis. New reporting systems must be established in dioceses around the world by June 1, 2020.

How will Vos Estis affect Catholics in Milwaukee?

Awake recently asked the Archdiocese of Milwaukee how it plans to implement the requirements of Vos Estis. This was one of the questions related to the abuse crisis that we submitted to the archdiocese in December 2019. We will share the archdiocese’s answers when we receive them.

Jim Cauley is a member of Three Holy Women Parish in Milwaukee and serves as a lector and parish council member. He works as a volunteer at Habitat for Humanity, Riverwest Food Pantry, and as a pro bono lawyer at Marquette Law School legal clinics.

3 thoughts on “What is Vos Estis, and how is it Related to the Crisis in the Church?

  1. What about bishop Malone and the diocese of Buffalo New York? We’ve been waiting for help for a very long time? The Catholic Church is dying in Buffalo 😡

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