It is extremely unusual for the Vatican to make a statement on the clerical sex abuse crisis. The one read out by the Pope's spokesman, Federico Lombardi, on Vatican Radio yesterday is a sign that Rome feels it can no longer resist the accusation that it is maintaining a wall of silence on the issue -- especially because a tide of fresh allegations against church institutions of cover-up and indifference are breaking over Catholic Europe.
What Fr Lombardi said:
"For some months now the very serious question of the sexual abuse of minors in institutions run by ecclesiastical bodies and by people with positions of responsibility within the Church, priests in particular, has been investing the Church and society in Ireland. The Holy Father recently demonstrated his own concern, particularly through two meetings: firstly with high-ranking members of the episcopate, then with all the ordinaries. He is also preparing the publication of a letter on the subject for the Irish Church.
"But over recent weeks the debate on the sexual abuse of minors has also involved the Church in certain central European countries (Germany, Austria and Holland). And it is on this development that we wish to make some simple remarks.
"The main ecclesiastical institutions concerned - the German Jesuit Province (the first to be involved, through the case of the Canisius-Kolleg in Berlin), the German Episcopal Conference, the Austrian Episcopal Conference and the Netherlands Episcopal Conference - have faced the emergence of problem with timely and decisive action. They have demonstrated their desire for transparency and, in a certain sense, accelerated the emergence of the problem by inviting victims to speak out, even when the cases involved date from many years ago. By doing so they have approached the matter 'on the right foot', because the correct starting point is recognition of what happened and concern for the victims and the consequences of the acts committed against them. Moreover, they have re-examined the extant 'Directives' and have planned new operative guidelines which also aim to identify a prevention strategy, so that everything possible may be done to ensure that similar cases are not repeated in the future.
"These events mobilise the Church to find appropriate responses and should be placed in a more wide-ranging context that concerns the protection of children and young people from sexual abuse in society as a whole. Certainly, the errors committed in ecclesiastical institutions and by Church figures are particularly reprehensible because of the Church's educational and moral responsibility, but all objective and well-informed people know that the question is much broader, and concentrating accusations against the Church alone gives a false perspective. By way of example, recent data supplied by the competent authorities in Austria shows that, over the same period of time, the number of proven cases in Church institutions was 17, while there were 510 other cases in other areas. It would be as well to concern ourselves also with them.
"In Germany initiatives are now rightly being suggested, promoted by the Ministry for the Family, to call a 'round table' of the various educational and social organisations in order to consider the question from an appropriate and comprehensive viewpoint. The Church is naturally ready to participate and become involved and, perhaps, her own painful experience may also be a useful contribution for others. Chancellor Angela Merkel had justly recognised the seriousness and constructive approach shown by the German Church.
"In order to complete these remarks, it is as well to recall once again that the Church exists as part of civil society and shoulders her own responsibilities in society, but she also has her own specific code, the 'canonical code', which reflects her spiritual and sacramental nature and in which, therefore, judicial and penal procedures are different (for example, they contain no provision for pecuniary sanctions or for the deprivation of freedom, but for impediment in the exercise of the ministry and privation of rights in the ecclesiastical field, etc.). In the ambit of canon law, the crime of the sexual abuse of minors has always been considered as one of the most serious of all, and canonical norms have constantly reaffirmed this, in particular the 2001 Letter 'De delictis gravioribus', sometimes improperly cited as the cause of a 'culture of silence'. Those who know and understand its contents, are aware that it was a decisive signal to remind the episcopate of the seriousness of the problem, as well as a real incentive to draw up operational guidelines to face it.
"In conclusion, although the seriousness of the difficulties the Church is going through cannot be denied, we must not fail to do everything possible in order to ensure that, in the end, they bring positive results, of better protection for infancy and youth in the Church and in society, and the purification of the Church herself".
The language is not always successful. It is curious to describe the accusations of cover-up of sex abuse in central Europe as a "debate". And the statement fails to recognize that the issue for the Church has been the way that accusations were not acted on in order to protect the institution -- something that other institutions have done, of course, but not on the scale or with the consistency of the Church over decades.
But the statement marks a turning point in Rome's response. No longer is the Vatican leaving it to local bishops' conferences to handle, but is publicly supporting and defending them. No longer is this an "Anglo-Saxon issue", but one affecting the universal Church. But the strategy is also to argue that sex abuse is a wider social problem, and the Church should not be scapegoated -- while at the same time accepting responsibility for the mishandling of the accusations in the past.
The penultimate paragraph is particularly interesting. The then Cardinal Ratzinger's 2001 letter De delictis gravioribus is often wrongly cited as proof of the Vatican's "culture of silence" over the issue. Germany's justice minister, for example, has told a German radio that the letter indicated how "the most severe cases of abuse are subject only to papal secrecy and should not be disclosed outside the Church"
In fact, the 2001 letter reserved to the CDF the processing of clerical sex abuse cases not in order to "cover up" the accusations, but to ensure they were acted on -- and, where guilt was proved, to speed the laicisation of abusing priests. Local bishops' conferences have been notoriously unable or unwilling to use canon law against abusive priests, which is why Lombardi says the 2001 letter "was a decisive signal to remind the episcopate of the seriousness of the problem, as well as a real incentive to draw up operational guidelines to face it".
Clearly it has stung Rome to be accused of covering up on behalf of local bishops' conference when it has put in measures to prevent those local cover-ups. That sense of injustice has led Rome now to say publicly what it has never said before: that it has needed to remind bishops that sex abuse is an extremely serious matter.
Reuters reports the statement with good background here.