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Vos Estis: Local Clergy And Lay Church Members Look Ahead

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At last week’s Conference, Catholic Bishops focused attention on how the Catholic Church in the United States will implement a new church law to combat sexual abuse and hold bishops accountable for their actions. 

The shadow of last summer’s Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on abuse by Catholic priests hung over the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Baltimore.  That grand jury investigation found that Catholic bishops covered up the sexual abuse by 300 priests.  Another blow to Catholic morale was the revelation that former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had abused seminarians.

Vos estis lux mundi, “you are the light of the world,” Pope Francis’ new law concerning sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, begins by exhorting the bishops to ensure that sexual abuse never again happens in the Catholic Church.  The law declares that the responsibility falls upon the bishops, above all, as the successors of the Apostles. 

“One feels the weight of the office from the very beginning of becoming a bishop. It’s a very big commitment.” Says Bishop Michael Sis, who oversees the San Angelo diocese, which includes Abilene and much of the Big Country.  “In the light of the events of the past year, it’s been much more challenging than in previous years. But already just bearing the burden of this level of oversight of a Church is already a big burden for anyone to carry, even in the easiest of years.”

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in San Angelo, taken with permission by Bishop Sis.
Credit Austin Gurchiek / KACU

Many American Catholics were demoralized by last summer’s revelations and wanted to see something done.  Maria Boecking attends Holy Family Catholic Church.  She says she’s a Catholic who has hope for the Church, action is taken.  “You know it has to be exposed and cleaned up and then I think the Church will be stronger.”

Vos estis, became Church law on June 1st, 2019, broadens the definition of abuse to include not only minors, but also those who are sexually abused by those in authority, such as McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians, or the abuse of nuns by priests.  It also requires every diocese worldwide to have an office for reporting sexual abuse by 2020.   

Bishop Sis says The Diocese of San Angelo, already has such an office, with a victim assistance coordinator.  “We have a phone number, it’s like a hotline, that’s always available for people to contact. And when they contact that person, it’s a lay woman, in our area, and she responds to them, she listens to them and takes their story, and she listens in a compassionate way.”  From there, the report is taken to a lay review board who help Bishop Sis in his response. Abuse victims are encouraged to report their abuse to the civil authorities, and the diocese reports all abuse cases to the civil authorities.  

The new law focuses a lot of attention on the accountability of bishops accused of sexual abuse.  Vos estis uses the “metropolitan model,” which directs an Archbishop to investigate allegations of abuse against bishops in his Province. 

Many lay Catholics, including the National Review Board, who advises the United States Catholic Bishops on combating sexual abuse, were wary of the metropolitan model.  They saw a conflict of interest in bishops investigating bishops. Vos estis allows lay experts to be involved in abuse investigations, but it does not require it. 

To assuage these fears, the bishops voted last week to add three measures of lay involvement to the implementation of Vos estis. The three measures ensure that lay experts will be involved in hearing the initial report, assisting the metropolitan Archbishop in the investigation, and seeing the report sent to Rome.

Speaking at the meeting in Baltimore, Bishop Robert Deeley, the Chairman of the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, said that the Bishops made it very clear that they wanted to see laity involved in the implementation of Vos estis.

“In accepting the Holy Father’s invitation to supplement his bold action through the development of directives for the Church in the United States, the document now before us integrates what we have heard from you this week. Namely, your genuine and earnest desire to bear witness to the synodallity of the Church whereby clergy and laity collaborate for the good of the whole ecclesial community.”  Deeley told the gathered bishops.

The motion to include these measures in the United States passed by a wide margin.  There were 218 “yes” votes, only one “no” vote, and a couple of abstentions.  

The San Angelo Diocese is part of the Metropolitan Province of San Antonio.  Bishop Sis says he believes Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller will actively involve lay people in investigations.

“We had a meeting of our Province while we were in Baltimore,”  says Sis. “We talked about these things and he fully intends to utilize the expertise of laity to the fullest extent possible.”

Last January, the Diocese of San Angelo released a list of clergy who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse.  The publication of the list followed a revelation from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report that a priest accused of sexual abuse was moved to the Diocese of San Angelo, and had served as a priest in Abilene decades earlier.  Most of the clergy on the list are dead or in prison.  One investigation not connected to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report is currently on-going, and that priest has been removed from active ministry. 

When they hear of accusations of abuse, many Catholics say they want to see a response from the Bishops beyond that of what you would expect from the CEO of a company.  Bishop Sis says that he understands that.         “I have personally taken on acts of reparation and prayer for the sins committed of sexual abuse in our church.  So I myself have taken on acts of reparation and prayer and I ask our clergy to do the same.”  Sis says the lay people in his churches are also praying for the church and offering acts of reparation.

The cathedra at Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in San Angelo, represents the authority of Bishop Michael Sis in the San Angelo Diocese.
Credit Austin Gurchiek / KACU

Bishop Sis says he is thankful to Pope Francis for issuing Vos estis, and he’s hopeful that implementing it will establish the same accountability for bishops as priests.  As he reflected on the bishops conference, Bishop Sis described it as a productive meeting, “I thank God for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in helping us to work through that.”

Vos estis lux mundi will be effective for three years in an experimental period at which point its effectiveness will be evaluated. The Catholic Bishops will meet again in November and continue their work to end sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.