The Vatican published a letter May 16, which it had recently circulated to the world’s bishops’ conferences on the issue of handling clerical sex-abuse cases.
The letter, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and dated May 3, requires every bishops’ conference to have guidelines for handling accusations of such abuse in place within one year.
The prefect of the doctrinal congregation, Cardinal William Levada, said that in every nation and region, bishops should have “clear and coordinated procedures” for protecting children, assisting victims of abuse, dealing with accused priests, training clergy and cooperating with civil authorities.
Describing sexual abuse of minors as “a crime prosecuted by civil law,” the Vatican said bishops should follow local laws that require reporting cases of sexual abuse to police.
The Vatican emphasized two key points in the text: first, the need to “address the problem promptly and effectively” in relation to the norms and civil authorities and, second, the fundamental competence of the diocesan bishops, giving them chief responsibility for handling such cases and not the Vatican.
“The aim is to give bishops a strong common denominator for drafting guidelines appropriate to their own national situation, with its unique culture and legislation,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters May 16. He stressed the letter offered a broad set of principles and indications that “will not only facilitate the formulation of the guidelines and therefore a uniformity of conduct of ecclesiastical authorities in various nations, but will also ensure consistency at the level of the universal Church, while respecting the competence of bishops and religious superiors.”
Father Lombardi said “priority is given to victims, prevention programs, seminary formation and ongoing formation of clergy” and that “cooperation with civil authorities [and] the careful and rigorous implementation of the most canonical recent legislation in the area are the principal considerations that must structure the guidelines in every corner of the world.”
The Vatican said the letter “represents a very important new step in promoting awareness throughout the Church of the need and urgency to effectively respond to the scourge of sexual abuse by members of the clergy.” Only in this way, it added, “can we renew full credibility in the witness and educational mission of the Church, and help create in society in general, safe educational environments of which there is an urgent need.”
The Vatican letter also offered bishops’ conferences guidance in dealing both with those making accusations as well as with accused clerics. People making accusations against a priest should be treated with respect, it said, and “spiritual and psychological assistance” should be offered to victims.
When an accusation is made, the Vatican said a priest must be presumed to be innocent until it is proven he is not. However, it said, a bishop can limit an accused priest’s ministry until an investigation can be conducted.
Although guidelines have been adopted as mandatory norms in several countries, including the United States, and approved by the Vatican, the letter said the guidelines the doctrinal congregation is now seeking throughout the world do not have to be binding. However, it said they must reflect the binding provisions of canon law and the special provisions enacted in 2001 and last year.
But critics of the instruction say it doesn’t go far enough. Barbara Dorris, a spokeswoman for the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said May 13, before the letter’s release, that “the Vatican abuse guidelines will change little,” particularly because they do not insist that the national guidelines be binding. Others say that although it is strong on abusive priests, it fails to address the question of how to deal with bishops who, Dorris said, may have protected the abusers.
Yet as far as the Vatican is concerned, the letter is reasonable, sufficient and clear. In an explanatory note, it stresses that the CDF “will offer direction to assure that appropriate measures are taken which both guarantee a just process for the accused priest, respecting his fundamental right of defense, and care for the good of the Church, including the good of victims.”
In this regard, it adds, “it should be noted that normally the imposition of a permanent penalty, such as dismissal from the clerical state, requires a penal judicial process. In accord with canon law the ordinary is not able to decree permanent penalties by extrajudicial decree. The matter must be referred to the CDF, which will make the definitive judgment on the guilt of the cleric and his unsuitability for ministry, as well as the consequent imposition of a perpetual penalty.”
Questioned by reporters about the current state of sex abuse within the Church, Father Lombardi said it is “an ever-changing situation.” He reminded them that English-speaking countries “have been investigating the issue for some time,” and documents on how to deal with the problem already exist in the U.S., England, Wales, Scotland, Malta, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and Canada.
(CNS contributed to this story.)
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