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Vatican orders world’s bishops to draw up guidelines on abuse

By on Monday, 16 May 2011

The document was released by US Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the CDF (CNS photo)

The document was released by US Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the CDF (CNS photo)

Every bishops’ conference in the world must have guidelines for handling accusations of clerical sex abuse in place within a year, the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith has said.

In a letter dated May 3 and released by the Vatican today, US Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the congregation, said that in every nation and region, bishops should have “clear and co-ordinated procedures” for protecting children, assisting victims of abuse, dealing with accused priests, training clergy and co-operating 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 Fr 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.

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 child 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 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.

Fr 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 children 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 harmonise 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 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 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 recognise the potential signs of abuse perpetrated by anyone in relation to children”.

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.

  • ThirstforTruth

    How many, many times must and have the Bishops done this…at least here in the USA?? It does not
    seem that the “problem ” lies so much in lack of procedure (lists) but the implementation of them.
    The Bishops KNOW what they need to do with or without a list per se…they just need TO DO WHAT
    IS RIGHT!  If they don’t know what is right why are they made Bishops!!! 

  • Brotherrolf

    The previous system seems to have been to handle it cannoically and don’t report it to the police.

  • Anonymous


  • DBMcGinnity


    Traditional Catholic Values: The Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith deliberate act of obfuscation and delay.
    Magdalene case goes to UN. by Claire O’Sullivan Friday, May 20, 2011.
    For those who wish to return to the age of austerity, please read this article. In the film The Magdalene Sisters. The film producers were not allowed produce scenes where a girl was made to clean the toiled with her tongue, or to lick up another girls vomit. Now at last the truth will emerge and surviving transgressors will be identified. Some are enjoying sanctuary in convents, and some have moved to other countries, but a UN summons may land them in “The Hague“, charged with torture just like President Gadaffi. The Fianna Fail party in Ireland has been the political wing of the Catholic Church, and they have managed to cover-up, obstruct and suppress the truth from being told. Therefore, I ask traditional Catholics, where in Catholic dogma does it say that it is Christlike to torture and humiliate human beings and to use them as slave labour? This is what the Catholic Church did. At the Nuremberg trials, some women were found guilty and hanged for committing the same crimes as the Magdalene Sisters. Read more:
    Archbishop Giuseppe Lenza the Papal Nuncio to Ireland and the Irish bishops have persistently obstructed, frustrated and obfuscated the progress of The Murphy Commission, set up by the Irish Government to inquire into the abuse of children in the Archdiocese of Dublin, The church have treated the victims and the Commission with contempt. Perhaps more to the point, they have ignored their obligations to the hundreds of people who suffered neglect, spiritual, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic Church in Ireland. Read more: Vatican guidelines to Bishops “dangerously flawed”, say advocatesBy Catherine Shanahan and Nicole Winfield, Vatican CityRead more:
    Vatican guidelines to Bishops “dangerously flawed”, say advocates
    By Catherine Shanahan and Nicole Winfield, Vatican City
    Read more:

  • guest

    I think making the priests that abuse children face criminal justice and jail, would be a good move. It is the protection of these men that sickens people as much as the crimes against children.

  • AgingPapist

    Oh, now he tells me!!   Too little and too late. 

  • Anonymous

    Yes, and furthermore it is in the Church’s interest – as it takes those priests, and dissociates them from the Church; whereas they were previously protected by the Church, and therefore the Church at large implicated.

  • Anonymous

    I could bet that they are flawed, as they have been drawn up by some of the Bishops that have previously protected priests, and have not helped in bringing priests to justice.

    Furthermore, what makes priests experts in dealing with cases of sexual crimes against children? They are neither psychologists, nor detectives, nor experts in criminal law. 

    An independent body hired by the Church, to create a strategy to bring criminals to justice would work the best; would put the congregations minds’ at rest and would send a message to the wider community – that the Church is serious about solving this problem.