ROME – Amid the various sexual abuse scandals that have rocked Catholicism in recent decades, most have involved clergy – priests, bishops, archbishops, all the way up to cardinals – while others turn on members of religious orders.
A handful, however, including some of the most protracted and painful scandals, involve laity who lead movements in the Church, such as Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari and his powerful Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV). Exactly what role local bishops and other authorities should play in policing such abuse has long been seen as something of a blind spot in Church law.
Perhaps it’s telling, therefore, that when two of the Church’s leading experts on the legal dimension of the abuse scandals were asked Tuesday about the implications of a new set of norms from Pope Francis for lay movements, they gave slightly contrasting responses.
For the Vatican’s top prosecutor and go-to man on abuse cases, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the norms, though they don’t mention lay founders specifically, are enough.
In comments to Crux, Scicluna said certain lay leaders are included in the norms under the heading of religious, “because when it says religious leaders, it doesn’t say clerical leaders, (so) it also includes women who are not clerics.”
In this sense, lay leaders are included, but “they have to be Institutes of Consecrated Life or Societies of Apostolic Life,” he said.
Published Thursday and set to go into effect June 1 for a 3-year trial period, the motu proprio, meaning a change to Church law under the pope’s authority, is titled Vos estis lux mundi, “You are the light of the world,” and it regulates how Church representatives are to respond when dealing with any crimes against the sixth Commandment.
Communities not covered under the new norms would fall under the same category as the Catholic Culture and Environment Association (ACCA), a Catholic lay movement in Sicily whose lay leader, Piero Alfio Capuana, 75, was arrested in August 2017 for allegedly sexually abusing seven girls who were minors at the time of the incidents.
The SCV is a pontifically recognized Society of Apostolic Life, meaning scandals surrounding Figari, who was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2017 after reports went public that he had abused minors and young adult men who were part of the SCV, would be covered by the new motu propio. However, ACCA is not.
Typically, cases such as ACCA which have no formal standing in Church law would be seen as the responsibility of the local bishop, and the temptation for the local bishop would be to toss the case to civil authorities.
What exactly happens with these Catholic groups and their lay leaders when something goes wrong remains unclear from an ecclesial perspective, however, according to Scicluna, any problem with these groups ought to be referred to the Vatican’s ambassador in the country where the incident occurred.
“This is something that would need to be tackled by the nuncio…with the help of the Holy See,” he said.
“The secret is always ask headquarters to tell you what you can do,” he said, but cautioned that “the law does not exhaust all possible problems in the Church.”
What it does is gives “a blueprint that we can develop also for other types of crime, for example, economic and financial crimes, which are not indicated (in the norms), but there’s a blueprint that can be used.”
However, another of the Vatican’s top legal experts had a different view.
Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the Vatican’s Council for Legislative Texts, which oversees all legal documents in the Holy See, including motu proprios and the Code of Canon Law, agreed that the new norms do cover founders of groups with pontifical standing, but said the Vatican’s penal law is deficient when it comes to laity.
“This document includes superiors male or female religious institutes,” Arrieta told Crux, explaining that lay founders are not specifically mentioned, but “by analogy” they are also covered in the norms.
In this sense, lay leaders of groups with pontifical recognition were still covered under previous norms, however, Arrieta said the question of these groups constitutes “a distinct problem” in Church law.
A revision of the Church’s penal law has been underway for several years, the most recent version of which was released in 1983.
According to Arrieta, “the role of religious and priests was thought of more” in the old version, however, “there is still not an awareness also of laity who occupy ecclesial positions in the code, in the general norms.”
“This is all being rethought, not in this norm, but in the general norm,” he said, explaining that the whole question of laity and lay leaders in canon law “is being developed” in revision of the penal code.