Vos estis lux mundi: Shining a light or designing a lottery around clerical sexual abuse?

Pope FrancisReuters

Accusations, convictions, inquiries and scandal. Nothing yet has seemed to illicit a response from the Vatican on abuse and violence within the Catholic Church. However, this week, the period of radio-silence ended with the publication of a new motu proprio (a type of Papal decree) from Pope Francis.

Vos estis lux mundi, "You are the light of the world", was issued on May 7 and is thought to be a response to the meeting of bishops' in February on the theme of the protection of minors within the Catholic Church.

The crux of the document is clear: every cleric, diocese and religious order has an obligation to report abuse. This must take place through a system within each diocese to submit reports easily, and a clear structure is laid out in which to do so.

The key terms, such as "minor", "vulnerable" and even "child p*rnography" are set out, and ways in which to approach survivors and reporters are suggested.

The statement begins with a curious verse from the Gospel of Matthew. "You are the light of the world" might seem like an unusual descriptor for such a dark issue. However, the continuation of Matthew 5:14 clarifies this: "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden."

In choosing this verse, Pope Francis is actively addressing the cover up of crimes that has chequered recent Vatican and clerical history. He reminds the reader, that all Christians are called to be examples of "virtue, integrity and holiness". Here he is clearly alluding to the less-shining examples recently outed in global media.

Pope Francis is not shy in laying the responsibility for change at the feet of "the successors of the Apostles", namely the Bishops of the Church.

Rather than verify this with codes of canon law however, Pope Francis continues the theme of light, quoting from Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations), the principle document from the Second Vatican Council.

He calls for a universal, fully-ecclesial adoption of procedures that encourage listening and inclusion. He asks bishops to "be open to the contributions of those who care deeply about this process of conversion". This could mean that bishops should accept help from survivors, victim support groups and families. It could also suggest that "those who care deeply" may not in fact, be the bishops themselves.

The decrees are set out in two clear sections: General Provisions around reporting, and Provisions concerning Bishops and their equivalents. In the first section, Pope Francis lays out the acts that, he says, violate the sixth commandment.

This includes forcing someone in participating into acts, the abuse of clerical authority for this purpose, performing sexual acts with minors or vulnerable people, and accessing child p0rnography (I.1.1).

This clearly addresses the topic of the latest synod, but poses concerning omissions.

If reading between the lines, this decree appears to legitimise consensual sexual acts with adults, the psychological abuse of minors or vulnerable people, and the access of adult-themed p*rnography.

With these questions still lingering, Pope Francis moves swiftly on to the practicalities of implementing reporting procedure.

He asks for dioceses and eparchies to establish "one or more public, stable and easily accessible" systems for the submission of reports (II.2.1).

Granting decision-making to individual dioceses is a trait of Pope Francis' that has caused issue in the past.

Most notably, in November 2015, the motu proprio Mitis iudex Dominus Iesus, "The Lord Jesus, Gentle Judge" gave bishops individual jurisdiction over cases of nullity in their dioceses.

Whilst it was stated that this would "assuage their consciences" of the Christian faithful, it instead created fear and outrage that attitudes to divorce and annulment would become a lottery; treatment would be different depending on which diocese you happened to live in.

Article five of this section sets out how ecclesiastical authorities should care for victims.

Investigations into historical cases, for example those analysed during the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (UK) in November 2018, have consistently concluded that bishops and dioceses mistreated victims and accusers in favour of preserving the dignity of clergy-abusers.

Therefore, whilst article five seems a sensible ask of the "shepherds of the people", it is clear given the Church's track record that some individuals require reminding that they ought to offer survivors and their families "spiritual assistance", listening and support.

The theme of supporting victims and those reporting abuse continues in the detail of the reporting structure in Title II.

The decrees in this section state that those reporting abuse cannot be subject to "prejudice, retaliation or discrimination" (I.4.2). However, the care of the accused is not forgotten, and point II.12.7 states that "the person under investigation enjoys the presumption of innocence".

Again, in light of historical cases, this notion will be a difficult pill for survivors to swallow. The assumed innocence of clergy stems from the vows of chastity made at ordination. Those advocating the innocence of convicted clergy like Cardinal Pell would agree with this point; those with abusers who have not been brought to justice under the law would not.

This new papal decree is a demonstration of a step towards the prevention of and fight against abuse. The practical and tangible actions that Pope Francis suggests are welcome at a time when it feels that the Catholic Church is stumbling through darkness.

However, his allusions to light do not necessarily address the ugly truth that has been hidden for so long. At the beginning of the document, Pope Francis states that in order for abuse on this scale to be prevented in the future, there must be "a continuous and profound conversion of heart".

Procedures and local jurisdictions may well address how these cases are handled, but not even Pope Francis can determine how these conversions of heart might happen.

What he has done is offer a light to each diocesan area, hoping that they illuminate the terrible crimes taking place in their area, rather than cast further shadows into the dark corners of the Catholic Church's history. It remains to be seen whether they do just that.

Nina Mattiello Azadeh studied music and philosophy and was a Faith in Politics media intern in 2016. She has a keen interest in interfaith relations, social action and is a classical ballet dancer. Follow her on Twitter @Ninamataz