Most of you are aware by now that Pope Francis has recently issued an Apostolic Letter in the form of a motu proprio that addresses in a significant way the current sexual abuse crisis plaguing the Church. Being issued in the form of a motu proprio means that the Holy Father is making these new directives universal law for the whole Church throughout the world. As I said in my initial statement upon the release of the pope’s letter, I am very encouraged by the Holy Father’s action.

The name of the letter is “Vos estis lux mundi” (“You are the light of the world”) and is the result of the February consultation that Pope Francis conducted with the presidents of all the national bishops’ conferences from all over the world. The contribution of the U.S. bishops, following our work at our last November meeting, is clearly evidenced in these new norms of law for the whole Church.

Very significant is that these new laws apply in particular to bishops and their equivalents in the structures of the Church. Previously, the Church in the United States had laws and procedures in place (since 2002) to address sexual abuse of a minor by a priest or a deacon. Only the pope has jurisdiction over bishops, and Pope Francis has now put in place laws that will hold bishops accountable in the same, and even expanded ways.

I do not intend to go into all the details of this new law in this column, but I want to point out a few things of importance and address some of the concerns I have already heard regarding the Pope’s letter.

The first and important thing to note is that this new document is “universal” law for the Church. This means that it applies everywhere and in every country. But each national bishops’ conference will now have to take these new norms and adapt and apply them for their specific country. Every country is different, with different civil laws, different cultural realities and different sensibilities. No one universal law in this area of concern can cover everything that is specific to a country and that must be taken into consideration. At the upcoming June meeting of the U.S. Bishops, we will take up these new norms and adapt, specify and apply them to our situation here in the United States.

Another important thing to note is exactly what kind of behavior on the part of bishops these new norms address. These new norms concerning bishops apply not only to the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults, but also cover the abuse of authority in forcing someone to engage in sexual acts. Very importantly, they also address actions or omissions on the part of bishops to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations of sexual abuse on the part of clergy or religious. This is meant to punish so called “cover ups” on the part of bishops.

The first concern I have heard about this new universal law for the Church is that it looks like it is just the bishops investigating themselves, which got us into this mess in the first place. They do not absolutely mandate the involvement of lay people in these investigations, and they put the metropolitan archbishop in charge of the investigation for his province. The other concern I have heard is that these new procedures seem, in the view of some, to keep these matters inside the Church, avoiding civil prosecution of abuse.

What needs to be understood is that these new laws mandate a process by which these sins and crimes are to be handled within the Church’s law and procedures. They do nothing to impede civil prosecution of these crimes. Just the opposite is true. In fact, the very last norm of this document says that the Church will do its own investigation without prejudice to the rights and obligations established in each place by state laws concerning any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities. We are all mandated reporters, and these crimes absolutely must be reported to the civil authorities who will conduct their own investigation and prosecution of these crimes.

The new norms clearly open the door to the involvement of qualified persons, including the laity, in the Church’s investigation of these canonical crimes. I can tell you that it was clearly the will of the U.S. Bishops at our last November meeting to mandate the use of qualified lay persons in the Church’s investigation. I fully expect that this will still be the case when the bishops take up the adaptation and implementation of these new laws for concrete application of the universal law here in the United States. Even though the universal law promulgated by the pope does not mandate this involvement, it will be the task of the U.S. bishops to do so. I will fight for this myself.

Apart from what the civil authorities will do to investigate and prosecute these crimes, the Church still needs its own procedures to deal with accused bishops, priests, deacons and religious to establish their standing in the Church, possibly leading to the dismissal of clerics and religious, a process sometimes referred to as “laicization” or “defrocking.” The civil and canonical procedures must take place side by side.

Please keep the bishops of the United States in your prayers as we go into our June meeting to adapt and concretize these universal laws for implementation and application in our own country. And as always, keep first in your prayers the victims and survivors of sexual abuse.