Vatican wants bishops’ conferences to have ‘clear and coordinated procedures’
VATICAN CITY – Every bishops’ conference in the world must have guidelines for handling accusations of clerical sex abuse in place within a year, says the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In a letter dated May 3 and released by the Vatican on May 16, US Cardinal William J. Levada, head of the Vatican office, 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 doctrinal congregation said bishops should follow local laws that require reporting cases of abuse to police.
Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the fact that conferences were given until the end of May 2012 to draft their guidelines demonstrates how seriously the Vatican takes the matter.
“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,” he told reporters.
The guidelines the doctrinal congregation now is seeking throughout the world do not have to be binding, the letter said, although they must reflect the binding provisions of canon law and the special provisions enacted in 2001 and last year.
The special provisions issued in the past 10 years expanded or extended several points of Church law: they defined a minor as a person under age 18 rather than 16; set a statute of limitations of 20 years, instead of 10 years, after the victim’s 18th birthday for bringing a Church case against an alleged perpetrator; established an abbreviated administrative procedure for removing guilty clerics from the priesthood; and included child pornography in the list of serious crimes which could bring expulsion from the priesthood.
Not all welcome the Vatican instruction. Ms Barbara Dorris, a spokeswoman for the US group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said that “the Vatican abuse guidelines will change little”, particularly because they do not insist that the guidelines be binding.
The doctrinal congregation said new guidelines should reflect the fact that diocesan or national review boards “cannot substitute for the discernment” and decision-making authority of individual bishops.
“The responsibility for dealing with the delicts of sexual abuse of minors by clerics belongs in the first place to the diocesan bishop,” the letter said. But the adoption of guidelines is to “lead to a common orientation within each episcopal conference, helping to better harmonise the resources of single bishops in safeguarding minors”.
Citing Pope Benedict’s meetings with representative victims of child sexual abuse in his trips outside Italy, the doctrinal congregation’s letter encouraged bishops or their representatives to meet with victims and their families.
Bishops’ conferences should consider introducing child protection programmes aimed at creating “safe environments” for children and educating Church workers and parents about the signs of abuse and how to handle suspected cases, the letter said.
The letter reiterated the need for bishops and Religious communities to exercise special care when accepting candidates for the priesthood or Religious life and to provide “a healthy human and spiritual formation” and a clear understanding of the value and meaning of chastity.
Special emphasis was given in the letter to the obligation of bishops and Religious superiors to exchange information about candidates who transfer from one diocese, seminary or Religious order to another.
The Vatican letter 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.
The Vatican said when an accusation is made, 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.
Bishop Paul Tan, president of the Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei bishops’ conference and head of Melaka-Johor diocese, told CatholicNews that the bishops of the region will discuss the Vatican’s letter during their July 3-8 meeting. - CNS
(Photo: People protest against clergy sex abuse outside the US Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters in Washington on May 18. CNS photo)