Let’s be clear that a new set of norms governing clerical sexual abuse cases authorized by Pope Francis and released Thursday by the Vatican are, by Roman standards anyway, a big deal. As a Vatican editorialist put it, the norms represent “a further and incisive step in the prevention and fight against abuse.”

For the first time, every diocese in the world is now required to have a public and accessible system for reporting both the crime of sexual abuse and the cover-up of that crime, which must be in place by June 1, 2020. All clerics and religious are required to report abuse or cover-up, and they’re to be protected when they do so.

Metropolitan archbishops (or whoever else is designated by the Vatican) are required to conduct a preliminary investigation when a report is made, and the Vatican departments to whom the results are submitted are required to act in a timely fashion. Participation by lay experts in those preliminary investigations is provided for.

While the norms do not address the question of reporting the crime and cover-up to civil authorities, because they deal with church procedures, they’ve been designed not to impede with existing duties to report under civil law.

(Insiders will be struck by a requirement that whatever Vatican department ends up handling a given case must inform both the Secretariat of State and other departments concerned about what it’s doing. In the quasi-feudal, hyper-compartmentalized world of the Vatican, that kind of coordination across department lines would, itself, represent something of a revolution.)

In short, these norms represent Francis delivering on his pledge during his anti-abuse summit last February to offer “concrete” measures. Their impact likely will be felt most intensely outside the West, since places such as the United States, Canada and some parts of Western Europe (though, ironically, not the pope’s backyard in Italy), already have fairly robust reporting systems.

To be sure, there are questions about how these norms will work in practice. Procedures become less clear at the local level, the protections for whistleblowers are ill-defined, and overall the document would appear to reinforce the predominance of the Secretariat of State in terms of the Vatican’s end of things - which, ironically, was once seen as part of the problem that such reforms were supposed to eliminate.

There’s also reason to wonder about how realistic the requirement of a response from Vatican departments within 30 days may be, given that there are presently scores of cases backlogged at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith alone.

Despite all that, it’s hard to look at Vos estis lux mundi, the formal Latin title of the document, and come away with the impression that Francis isn’t serious about cleaning things up.

On the other hand, experience suggests a degree of caution when highly-touted “breakthroughs” and “turning points” come down the line, because sometimes, even with the best of intentions, they turn out to be less than advertised.

Probably the acid test for Vos estis lux mundi will be its impact on accountability not just for crime of the sexual abuse of a minor, but the cover-up of that crime.

The question of what happens to bishops who drop the ball on abuse cases, who look the other way or actively try to cover it up, has long been the single most massive piece of unfinished business in the reform effort. While scores of abusers have been expelled from the priesthood in recent years, to date no church official has been publicly sanctioned for the cover-up, and that accountability gap is a large part of what has left both survivors and rank-and-file Catholics alike around the world fuming.

Under the new norms, cover-up of sexual abuse is subject to mandatory reporting and a preliminary investigation to ascertain if an allegation is credible. The question is what happens assuming the answer is “yes,” and here things get a bit murkier.

It’s important to note Vos estis lux mundi provides only procedural norms, rather than creating any new crimes and punishments. That means that once its procedures have been exhausted, existing law must come into effect to finish the job.

At the moment, the most specific policy the Catholic Church has dealing with the cover-up of abuse by bishops and other superiors is Come una madre amorevole, a 2016 document from Francis dealing with how the cases of such bishops should be handled.

Initially the plan was to create a new judicial department within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to handle cover-up allegations, but that plan got bogged down. In truth, it was always a bit of a dead-end street, since the novelty of Come una madre amorevole was to treat cases of malfeasance not criminally - requiring the presumption of innocence, the pontifical seal for evidence, a series of appeals, and so on, which can drag out forever - but as an administrative matter allowing a swifter and more conclusive response.

It was then decided that authority to judge these cases would be distributed among the various Vatican departments that appoint or exercise supervision over bishops. To date, there’s been no disclosure about how many such allegations have been received or what’s been done about them, and there’s been no public case of sanctions being imposed as a result.

When Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s point man on abuse cases, was sked Tuesday how many bishops have been investigated under the terms of Come una madre amorevole, his succinct reply was that he doesn’t know.

The real issue, therefore, isn’t whether there is or isn’t a tribunal. It’s why the Vatican departments charged with implementing the policy don’t seem to be doing it - whether it’s a question of training, staffing and resources, which can be fixed fairly easily, or whether something deeper is getting in the way.

In that sense, the danger with Vos estis lux mundi may be a bit analogous to a glitzy new app designed to run on a flawed operating system. No matter how elegant the app, if the underlying OS it runs on can’t handle the programming, inevitably there will be freezes, glitches and heartburn.

That may well be the challenge going forward, now that Vos estis lux mundiis on the books: To do the necessary debugging throughout the rest of the system to make sure the pope’s promising new app doesn’t freeze every time someone actually tries to use it.


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Crux is an exclusive editorial partner of Angelus News, providing news reporting and analysis on Vatican affairs and the universal Church.