VATICAN CITY – Every bishops’ conference in the world must have guidelines for handling accusations of clerical sex abuse in place within a year, said the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In a letter dated May 3 and released by the Vatican May 16, U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, congregation prefect, 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 sexual abuse to police.
Since the early 1990s about two dozen bishops’ conferences, starting mainly with English-speaking countries, have drawn up guidelines for dealing with accusations of sexual abuse of minors filed against clergy and other church employees. Other conferences – for example, the Italian bishops’ conference – have said they did not draw up guidelines because bishops were obliged to follow canon law and special provisions enacted in 2001 by Blessed Pope John Paul II and in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the fact that conferences were given a precise deadline and only 12 months 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 May 16.
The guidelines of several countries, including the United States, have been adopted as mandatory norms in those countries and approved by the Vatican.
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.
Barbara Dorris, a spokeswoman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, said in a statement May 16 that “the Vatican abuse guidelines will change little,” particularly because they do not insist that the national guidelines be binding.
“Bishops ignore and conceal child sex crimes because they can,” the SNAP statement said, adding that “any ‘reform’ that doesn’t diminish bishops’ power and discretion is virtually meaningless.”
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.
Father Lombardi said the point of the letter was to make clear that an individual bishop “cannot abdicate his responsibility” for ensuring child safety and handling abuse cases, even though he may avail himself of the advice of outside experts.
He said the fact that the guidelines do not have to be binding does not lessen a bishops’ responsibility or the church’s commitment to ending abuse. Rather, he said, it is a recognition that in many countries all the bishops have agreed to follow the same procedures and, culturally, did not feel a need to have a Vatican stamp on them in order for them to be binding.
“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 national guidelines is meant to “lead to a common orientation within each episcopal conference, helping to better harmonize the resources of single bishops in safeguarding minors.”
Citing Pope Benedict’s meetings with representative victims of child sexual abuse during his trips outside Italy, the doctrinal congregation’s circular letter encouraged bishops or their representatives to meet with victims and their families.
Bishops’ conferences should consider introducing child protection programs 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 doctrinal congregation said bishops must act as fathers and brothers to their priests, ensuring their ability to live out celibacy, to understand how clerical sexual abuse damages victims and “to recognize the potential signs of abuse perpetrated by anyone in relation to minors.”
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.