The prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has written to the world's 5,000 Catholic bishops asking them to introduce "clear and coordinated procedures" for dealing with clerical sex abuse allegations, and laying out the principles which should govern them. Cardinal William Levada says each bishops' conference should send a copy of their guidelines to the CDF by the end of May 2012.
The Vatican's spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, said the principles in the CDF's "Circular Letter" were designed to ensure "uniformity of conduct of ecclesiastical authorities in various nations" and "consistency at the level of the universal Church" in responding to abuse allegations. He said the tight deadline for the drawing up of guidelines was "a very strong and eloquent statement" and that the Letter itself showed the Church's awareness of "the need and urgency to respond effectively to the scourge of sexual abuse by members of the clergy".
In a rebuttal of the clericalist mentality which has put the interests of priests and the institution first, the Letter's first paragraph makes clear that bishops' responsibility to protect "the common good of the faithful and, especially, the protection of children and the young" demands an "appropriate" response to clerical sexual abuse of minors.
And in a sharp rejection of bishops in the past failing to follow the legal route, either canonical or civil, against abusive priests, the Letter demands that their guidelines "make provision for the implementation of the appropriate canon law, and, at the same time, allow for the requirements of civil law".
The Letter itself divides into five parts, each laying out key themes to take into account.
Under "General Considerations", the Letter says bishops should listen to victims and their families and help them, both spiritually and psychologically, citing as a model Pope Benedict's meetings with abuse survivors on his foreign trips. The CDF goes on to point to church education and prevention programs designed to spot signs of abuse and take action; and to stress the importance of screening candidates for the priesthood and the proper education of seminarians in "an appreciation of chastity and celibacy, and the responsibility of the cleric for spiritual fatherhood".
Although the beginning of the next paragraph -- "The bishop has the duty to treat all his priests as father and brother" -- rings alarm bells (that has been precisely the language used by Vatican old guard cardinals such as Dario Castrillon-Hoyos to justify not reporting abusive priests to the police), the CDF makes clear that this spiritual paternity does not include a failure to act against them. "In dealing with cases of abuse which have been denounced to them the bishops are to follow as thoroughly as possible the discipline of canon and civil law".
The implementation of bishops' guidelines in the US and the UK have led to many priests being indefinitely suspended even when charges against them have been dropped. Many canonists have criticized the way that the "paramountcy principle" -- the safety of the young comes first -- has led bishops effectively to judge a priest guilty without proof, leaving both his ministry and his reputation in tatters.
The CDF understands those concerns: "the accused cleric," it states, "is presumed innocent until the contrary is proven". It goes on to add, however, that "the bishop is always able to limit the exercise of the cleric’s ministry until the accusations are clarified" (a major concession to bishops, it turns out, since many cases are never really "clarified" by convincing proof either way.) But the CDF goes on to make clear that a bishop has an obligation to restore a wrongly accused priest's reputation. If a priest is reinstated, "whatever measures can be taken to rehabilitate the good name of a cleric wrongly accused should be done".
The Circular Letter notes that bishops have to deal with abuse allegations in both legal spheres: "Sexual abuse of minors is not just a canonical delict but also a crime prosecuted by civil law." Although civil laws differ, the general principle is clear: "it is important to cooperate with such authority within their responsibilities ... the prescriptions of civil law regarding the reporting of such crimes to the designated authority should always be followed."
Having laid out these general considerations, the Letter summarizes the canonical legislation governing the delict of sex abuse of minors, and the many additions and reforms made since 2001, when Pope John Paul II removed responsibility for handling such cases from the Congregation of Clergy and gave it to the CDF, then headed by Cardinal Ratzinger. The reforms introduced by the CDF have allowed for much swifter laicization of abusive priests and given the doctrinal office sweeping powers. The reforms have also been designed to ensure that bishops take appropriate action by demanding that all credible cases be referred by bishops to Rome, which then advises on the way forward.
However, the CDF makes clear that "the responsibility for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors belongs, in the first place, to Bishops or Major Superiors": it is they who have to investigate credible allegations. That investigation "ought to be carried out with due respect for the privacy of the persons involved and due attention to their reputations": the accused, it says, should normally be kept informed.
The Letter ends by making clear that bishops' guidelines have a delicate path to tread between, on the one hand, the demands of canon law, and on the other, secular and civil norms. The guidelines must be in conformity with canon law -- "a complement to universal law and not replacing it" -- and Rome must approve (by its recognitio) any "binding" legislation by bishops' conferences.
For example, bishops cannot devolve their particular responsibility in canon law onto child protection bodies created by the Church: "consultative bodies of review and discernment concerning individual cases, foreseen in some places, cannot substitute for the discernment and potestas regiminis of individual bishops". In other words, a bishop cannot ask a church child protection agency to investigate instead of the bishop; it is he who must decide if an allegation is credible.
On the other hand, the Letter adds that "Guidelines are to make allowance for the legislation of the country where the Conference is located, in particular regarding what pertains to the obligation of notifying civil authorities". In other words, the bishop must immediately notify police and social services in those countries where there is a legal obligation to do so. (In some countries, sex abuse of minors is not even illegal).
It has not always been easy - as the experience of the bishops' conferences of the US and England and Wales has shown -- to balance the different requirements of canon and civil law, the paramountcy principle with the rights of the accused, the right to privacy with the obligation to report to the police, the need for justice and the need for healing.
But the Circular Letter makes clear that the attempt to find that balance can no longer be avoided by the Church anywhere in the world. Abuse allegations must be acted on.