WASHINGTON — Bishops have the ultimate responsibility when it comes to dealing with sexually abusive priests.

That reality was affirmed this week by Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The American cardinal, who holds the position long held by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued a “circular letter” to bishops “to assist episcopal conferences in developing guidelines for dealing with cases of the sexual abuse of minors perpetrated by clerics.”

Cardinal Levada confirmed that the bishop should meet personally with abuse victims. The letter noted that “responsibility for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors belongs, in the first place, to bishops or major superiors. If an accusation seems true, the bishop or major superior, or a delegate, ought to carry out the preliminary investigation,” in accord with canon law.

Stipulating that the local bishop holds the ultimate responsibility has already provoked public debate , with U.S. victims’ groups charging that many bishops failed to effectively protect minors and remove clerical predators and still cannot be trusted.

The recent Philadelphia grand jury report, which attacked the Philadelphia Archdiocese for failing to remove many priests with “credible accusations,” has buttressed this harsh judgment. Meanwhile, a critique by the chairwoman of the archdiocese’s lay review board highlighted missteps and confusion regarding the specific responsibilities of Cardinal Rigali and the lay review board.

Cardinal Levada’s letter confirmed that the local ordinary or religious superior has the “duty”  to “give an appropriate response to the cases of sexual abuse of minors by clerics in his diocese.”

Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the justice promoter in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and its top expert on clerical sexual abuse, emphasized the primary role of the local bishop in the Church’s response to the sexual abuse of minors by the clergy.

“In any discernment of a case, in any decision taken on a case, the bishop has an important role to play. He is responsible for decisions concerning his priests. He has the duty to consult experts in the field and has to listen to his community, but the responsibility of the ultimate decisions about what happens to his priests and to his people concerning child protection remains with him, with the bishop,” stated Msgr. Scicluna in a Reuters interview.

In the Catholic Church’s understanding of its own structure, the bishop’s role in the local church is pivotal. Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (“Lumen Gentium”) makes explicit that their authority arises from God’s will and not by human institution, which in turn implies heavy responsibility to act in a Christ-like way. According to the Council, the power they have, “which they personally exercise in Christ’s name, is proper, ordinary and immediate, although its exercise is ultimately regulated by the supreme authority of the Church, and can be circumscribed by certain limits, for the advantage of the Church or of the faithful. In virtue of this power, bishops have the sacred right and the duty before the Lord to make laws for their subjects, to pass judgment on them and to moderate everything pertaining to the ordering of worship and the apostolate. The pastoral office or the habitual and daily care of their sheep is entrusted to them completely.”

While the directions Cardinal Levada provided in the circular letter have provoked criticism from victims’ groups, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights contends that the diverse and sometimes anti-Catholic political and legal environment in various parts of the globe required guidelines “respectful of episcopal autonomy and do not attempt a universal template.”

“The Vatican understands the role that diocesan review boards play,” Donohue added, “but it also recognizes that they are not a substitute for the authority lodged in the bishop.”

Review Board Limited

But Ana Maria Catanzaro, the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s lay review board chairwoman, has a less benign view of the competing and, at times, overlapping responsibilities of local bishops and lay review boards.

This month, Catanzaro published a critique of Cardinal Justin Rigali’s response to the Philadelphia grand jury report in Commonweal magazine.

She stated that the lay board learned that it had not received all the files of credibly accused priests cited in the Philadelphia grand jury report’s scathing critique; unbeknownst to the review board, an unidentified archdiocesan official had determined which cases the board would review.

“The February 2011 grand jury criticized the review board for not recommending the suspension of several priests,” wrote Catanzaro, citing the report’s assertion that “in cases where the archdiocese’s review board has made a determination … the results have often been even worse than no decision at all.”

Catanzaro said that the grand jury had never asked members of the review board “to testify about how we arrived at recommendations. In fact, the board had reviewed just 10 cases involving the 37 priests.”

“None of the evidence we saw concerning the 10 led us to conclude they had sexually abused minors,” she charged.

The archdiocese did not make the facts clear in subsequent public responses to the grand jury report, she contended, leaving the public to conclude that the lay board was at fault. Over time, the board members came to understand that their authority was sharply limited, whatever the public’s perception might be.

“The review board does not have the power to subpoena, nor does it have the authority to remove a priest from ministry. We simply examine the evidence available to us, determine whether there is enough evidence to indicate that a minor has been sexually abused, and make a recommendation to the cardinal regarding that priest’s suitability for ministry. It is up to the cardinal to accept or reject our recommendations,” she said.

Her article also addressed two critical problems that contributed to the puzzling discrepancy between the grand jury report’s conclusions and Cardinal Rigali’s initial insistence that no credibly accused priest remained in ministry: The archdiocese and the grand jury abided by different standards for weighing the credibility of abuse allegations.

First the definition of “sexual abuse” employed in the Church’s norms is “vague. What is meant precisely by ‘an offense by a cleric against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue with a minor’? ” she asked.

Archdiocese Responds

A second problem introduced further confusion: “The grand jury’s standard for determining the credibility of allegations was different from the review board’s. Apparently relying on the Pennsylvania Crimes Code and the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law, the grand jury considered a wide range of behaviors reportable offenses,” she stated in the article. “The review board’s standard, in accord with the charge given to us in 2003 and at the insistence of archdiocesan canon lawyers, was the charter’s and norms’ problematic definition of sexual abuse.”

Diane Knight, the chairwoman of the National Review Board, confirmed during an interview that the grand jury report, and Cardinal Rigali’s subsequent suspension of additional priests, flagged several issues that would be examined when the nation’s bishops meet in Seattle in June.

Regarding the apparent discrepancy between the “grand jury’s standard for determining the credibility of allegations” and the review board’s, Knight concluded, “I am sure that her [Catanzaro’s] experience is not unique. Other dioceses may also be dealing with similar issues.”

The Philadelphia Archdiocese was asked to comment on Catanzaro’s Commonweal article, and Kenneth Gavin, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Archdiocese, issued a statement that did not challenge the assertions in her article, but did not provide specific responses. The archdiocese’s investigation of the grand jury’s charges has not been completed. In addition:

“The Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s understanding of the best methods for investigating and taking action on reported allegations of sexual abuse, especially those that civil authorities do not pursue, has continually changed over the years. Despite all the work that has been done, there is clearly much more to do.”

In the wake of the scandal, the statement continued, Cardinal Rigali “created a new position, delegate for investigations, to which he named Mr. Albert Toczydlowski, a former Philadelphia deputy district attorney with over 30 years of experience.  Since taking this position, Mr. Toczydlowski … has been responsible for immediately reporting any new allegations (current or historical) to law enforcement.”

Ideally, the new Delegate for Investigations, along with the Office of Child and Youth Protection, which includes victims’ services and safe environment training, and the lay review board, will keep Cardinal Rigali well informed. Donna Farrell, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, confirmed that after the grand jury report the archdiocese had hired at least three additional experts, including a victims services consultant and a former sex-crimes prosecutor, who is reviewing cases of concern to the grant jury.

Diane Knight suggested that larger U.S. dioceses with “significant resources” might replicate the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s decision to segregate victims services from the entire process of receiving and investigating abuse allegations.

But, as Cardinal Levada’s circular letter made clear: The archbishop, and no one else, bears ultimate responsibility for the protection of his flock from predatory priests.

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.