Vatican to issue long-awaited sex abuse document

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Associated Press
06 July 2010


VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI will soon issue a document outlining the church’s procedures for handling clerical sex abuse cases that will gather the norms now in use and make them permanent and legally binding, a Vatican official and canon lawyer said Tuesday. 

The “instruction” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been in the works for some time. But its impending publication has taken on new relevance amid the abuse scandal that has roiled the Vatican for months, with hundreds of new cases coming to light of priests who raped and sodomized children, bishops who covered up for them and Vatican officials who turned a blind eye. 

The norms concern the canonical procedures for dealing with abusive priests, with penalties as severe as being dismissed from the clerical state. Separately, the Vatican issued informal guidelines earlier this year saying bishops should follow civil reporting laws in terms of reporting abuse to police. 

It’s unclear whether the new set of norms will include any reference to civil reporting requirements. Since such requirements vary from country to country, it would be difficult to make reference to them in a document that is canonically binding on the church around the globe, noted the Rev. Davide Cito, a canon lawyer and consultant at the Congregation. 

The norms now in place have been modified and updated from a 2001 Vatican document and set of procedures issued by Pope John Paul II outlining how the church should handle the abuse of minors by priests. 

The 2001 documents require bishops to report credible accusations of abusive priests to the Congregation, which then decides how to proceed, including through a full canonical trial. In 2003 — a year after the U.S. abuse scandal exploded — the norms were amended to speed up administrative penalties against abusive clerics where the evidence them is overwhelming, among other things. 

But those 2003 modifications were ad hoc and temporary in nature and had to be reconfirmed, for example, by Benedict after John Paul died in 2005. By gathering them together and including them now in an official, binding document, they become permanent church law. 

As a result, the new instruction is expected to contain little that goes beyond what is currently the practice of the Congregation, Cito said. The instruction, for example, is expected to formally extend the 10-year statute of limitations for abuse cases that was imposed for the first time in the 2001 procedures. But those limits have been waived on a case-by-case basis already since 2002 since the 10-year limit was deemed too short. 

In addition, downloading child pornography from the Internet is expected to be included as a “grave” canonical crime for the first time in a Vatican instruction. That said, the Congregation’s sex crimes prosecutor, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, has written that the Congregation for several years has considered it such in practice. 

A Vatican official declined to give a date for the instruction’s publication, but said it was expected in the near future. Cito said he understood the document had already been signed by Benedict, who on Wednesday moves to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo for the rest of the summer.

Amid the current scandal, the 2001 norms have been held up by Vatican officials as evidence of Benedict’s get-tough attitude to pedophile priests, since he was prefect of the Congregation at the time and signed a letter accompanying the documents to bishops around the world. The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, though, was known to be far more concerned with matters of faith than technical canonical procedures.

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2 Responses to Vatican to issue long-awaited sex abuse document

  1. AbsentObserver says:

    It may in inappropriate, but I sort of shake my head and laugh a little bit when I hear any official from the Catholic church talk about policies and procedures relating to allegations of sexual abuse leveled at priests. Over the years, both the church as a whole and individual dioceses have had policies and procedures in place and, in my opinion, they amounted to little more than a hill of beans. In the first place, the Vatican can issue directives to the clergy worldwide but it doesn’t mean they’re going to be followed. When Bishop Paul-Andre Durocher testified at the Cornwall Public Inquiry, he made it clear priests within any particular diocese follow directives set out by the bishop and nobody else. It would be up to the bishop in any diocese to adopt any directives issues by the Vatican. It may come down from on high as an order, but if anyone remembers the way Bishop Eugene LaRocque ruled over the Diocese of Alexandria-Cornwall (with a bit of an iron fist) it’s not hard to imagine some bishops may decide to brush aside a Vatican-issued directive in favour of his own policies and procedures.
    And does anyone remember the “policy” LaRocque put in place in the diocese in the late 1980s?

    Here’s the story from the Standard-Freeholder about this policy …

    A former city Catholic bishop suggested in 1987 one way to deal with priests accused of sexually abusing children was to move them to another diocese.
    One of the documents being used in a corporate presentation by the Alexandria-Cornwall Roman Catholic Diocese at the Cornwall Public Inquiry is called “Principles and Procedures for Clergy in Difficulty,” which was written by former Bishop Eugene LaRocque and presented to a council of area priests in March 1987.
    The document suggests moving a priest from one diocese to another was one way to deal with the situation.
    “The Christian community must learn to take its responsibility in re-admitting both those who complained as a Christian duty and the member of the clergy involved,” LaRocque wrote. “For the sake of community, in some instances, (relocation to) another diocese may be best for all concerned.”
    LaRocque also references principles from the Second Vatican Council which spoke to the issue of the care of priests “in difficulty.”
    “Each and every priest . . . is joined to his brother priests by a bond of charity, prayer and every kind of cooperation,” the document reads. “By reason of the same communion in the priesthood, priests should realize that they have special obligations toward priests who labour under certain difficulties.”
    For the more serious cases involving abuse allegations against a priest, LaRocque recommended several courses of action to deal with the problem.
    He suggested things such as immediate suspension, action which he believed would “show the prosecuting attorney a seriousness of intent”; immediate treatment and support of the member of clergy and victims; and plea bargaining, action which he wrote may be “necessary to avoid litigation or incarceration.”
    “Every member of the clergy must know that he will be welcomed, taken seriously and supported by the church (clergy and people) which he seeks to serve with his whole life,” LaRocque wrote. “The loneliness, the pressures of modern life, the ‘workaholism,’ the disgust with oneself or even psychotic disorders can cause many disorders or they can help to deepen our spiritual life.”

    Of course, Bishop Durocher went on to testify that policy was not formally adopted by the diocese and he referred to it as LaRocque’s “own guiding principles.” Does this not at least lend mild support to the notion a bishop may act in accordance with his own policies and procedures rather than follow a Vatican directive?

    Just wondering.

  2. Sylvia says:

    As I understand it, when the Vatican directive is released there will be concurrent or imminent changes to the Code of Canon Law. The bishops must abide by the Code of Canon Law. It also sounds as though the directive itself will be legally binding. If that’s the case, the bishops must abide by it.

    As for the bishops being free to do as they will with their policies practices and procedures, that would come to an end. There may be some wiggle room here and there, – we will have to see what the directive says.

    A binding directive is long overdue. As long as there was no official Vatican directive on handling allegations of clerical sexual abuse the bishops were basically free to implement their own guidelines.

    And for all talk about the CCCB’s sex abuse guidelines (From Pain to Hope), that’s all they were, guidelines. The CCCB has no authority to compel the bishops of Canada to utilize those guidelines.

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