A wake-up call for the pastors

A wake-up call for the pastors


Juridic implications of the M.P. Come una Madre Amorevole

After the recent scandal involving a priest in the Diocese of Antipolo, a very serious question was brought to my attention: What happens if allegations are made of sexual abuse of minors (e.g., some Knights of the Altar or altar boys) by one of their senior coordinators (a layman). Since the alleged perpetrator of the act is not a cleric, strictly-speaking, this would not fall under the provisions for the so-called delicta graviora contained in the M.P. Sacraentorum Sanctitatis Tutela (30.IV.2001) of John Paul II and amended by Benedict XVI in 21.V.2010. Can the Church—i.e., the Bishop—do anything to remedy the situation? Should he?

IT has been a year since Pope Francis’s motu proprio, Come una Madre Amorevola (“Like a Loving Mother”), entered in force. Promulgated on 4 June 2016, it is very clearly a piece of legislation from the Supreme Legislator of the Canonical Ordering. What is important is to realize that beyond the tender note of the document’s title—Like a Loving Mother—lies very serious and strong provisions against those Pastors who fail to act like a loving mother towards their flock, as regards the more serious crimes (delicta graviora) previously outlined in the M.P. Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela (30.IV.2001), particularly—but not limited to—cases of sexual abuse inflicted on minors and vulnerable adults. In effect, Francis stated that “Canon Law already provides for the possibility of removal from ecclesiastical office ‘for grave reasons’ [of] diocesan Bishops … and those who are by law equal to them (cf. c.193, §1 of the CIC).”  It is in the light of that document that the hypothetical problem stated above can be addressed.

The purpose of the motu proprio:  To implement the M.P. Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela

The Holy Father clearly stated the purpose of the motu proprio in the third introductory paragraph: “With this Letter my intention is to underline that among the aforesaid ‘grave reasons’ (for their removal from office) is the negligence of a Bishop in the exercise of his office, and in particular in relation to cases of sexual abuse inflicted on minors and vulnerable adults, as stated in the Motu Proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela promulgated by St John Paul II and amended by my beloved Predecessor, Benedict XVI.”  Thus, if hitherto the M.P. Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela had focused on the graviora delicta, the prosecution of which was reserved to the Holy See, the present document puts the burden for making sure that such cases are brought to the attention of the Holy See for proper prosecution squarely on the shoulders of the local ordinaries under pain of removal from office. This is clearly stated as follows:


Article 1

  • 1. The diocesan Bishop or Eparch, or one who even holds a temporary title and is responsible for a Particular Church, or other community of faithful that is its legal equivalent, according to c.368 CIC or c.313 CCEO, can be legitimately removed from this office if he has through negligence committed or through omission facilitated acts that have caused grave harm to others, either to physical persons or to the community as a whole. The harm may be physical, moral, spiritual or through the use of patrimony.
  • 2. The diocesan Bishop or Eparch can only be removed if he is objectively lacking in a very grave manner the diligence that his pastoral office demands of him, even without serious moral fault on his part.
  • 3. In the case of the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults it is enough that the lack of diligence be grave.
  • 4. The Major Superiors of Religious Institutes and Societies of Apostolic Life of Pontifical Right are equivalent to diocesan Bishops and Eparchs.

Three points need underlining. Firstly, this is a penal norm, directed to bishops, whose neglect has caused grave harm—physical, spiritual or economic—to either physical persons or to the community as a whole. As a penal norm, it typifies the crime and attaches the penalty—i.e., removal from office.

Secondly, the present legislation is not limited to cases of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults. In fact it applies to all cases of serious neglect by bishops and their equivalents in what pertains to cases of delicta graviora, as outlined in the aforementioned M.P. Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, especially as amended by Benedict XVI.

Thirdly, the scope of the aforementioned legislation does not seem to be limited to sexual abuse of minor by clerics, but includes other cases of sexual abuse of minors that fall under the purview of the bishop as pastor of his flock. It is under this possible scope that the aforementioned hypothetical case can be considered—i.e., since altar knights are clearly under the care of the parish and eventually of the bishop, for such alleged sexual abuse of such minors to go unexamined by the bishop would clearly constitute neglect, making that bishop liable to be prosecuted according to the present motu proprio.

  How will the bishop be prosecuted?

The motu proprio contains the mechanics for the prosecution of the negligent bishop, as follows:

            Article 2

  • 1. In all cases in which there is serious evidence of what is contained in the previous article, the competent Congregation of the Roman Curia can open an inquiry into the case, informing the subject involved and giving the accused the possibility of providing documentation and testimony.
  • 2. The Bishop will be given the possibility to defend himself, something he can do by the means provided for by law. All stages of the inquiry will be communicated and he will always be given the possibility of meeting with the Superiors of the Congregation. This meeting will be proposed by the appropriate dicastery even should the Bishop himself take no initiative.
  • 3. In view of the arguments presented by the Bishop, the Congregation may decide to open a supplementary investigation.

            Article 3

  • 1. Before making a decision, the Congregation may meet, when appropriate, with other Bishops or Eparchs belonging to the same Bishops’ Conference or Synod of Bishops of thesui iuris Church as the Bishop or Eparch in question, with the purpose of discussing the said case.
  • 2. The Congregation will adopt its determination when gathered in an Ordinary Session.

            Article 4

Whenever the removal of a Bishop is held to be opportune, the Congregation, depending on the circumstances of the case, will establish whether:

1º. to issue, and in the briefest possible amount of time, a decree of removal;

2º. to fraternally exhort the Bishop to present his letter of resignation within a period of fifteen days. If the Bishop does not give his response within this period of time the Congregation can proceed to issue the decree of removal.


            Article 5

The decision of the Congregation as stated in articles 3–4 must be submitted for the specific approval of the Roman Pontiff, who before making a definitive decision will take counsel with a special College of Jurists designated for this purpose.



The bishop can definitely initiate an investigation. In fact, in the light of the aforementioned motu proprio, it would seem that he should, to avoid possible prosecution and removal from office. In any case, just like in the case of a cleric accused of such sexual misbehavior, a preventive suspension of the lay coordinator from his work and contact with altar boys seems indicated. Finally, should the allegations be substantiated, that suspension should become permanent.

We can end with the opening paragraphs of the motu proprio, which put in proper context the otherwise stern note of the new norms:

The Church loves all her children like a loving mother, but cares for all and protects with a special affection those who are smallest and defenseless. This is the duty that Christ himself entrusted to the entire Christian community as a whole. Aware of this, the Church is especially vigilant in protecting children and vulnerable adults.

This duty of care and protection devolves upon the whole Church, yet it is especially through her Pastors that it must be exercised. Therefore diocesan Bishops, Eparchs and those who have the responsibility for a Particular Church must pay vigilant attention to protecting the weakest of those entrusted to her care.