While acknowledging “the efforts which the bishops of the United States have made through the norms and the guidelines contained in the bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People to protect minors and to avoid future recurrences of these abuses,” the Vatican has said that the application of these policies “can be the source of confusion and ambiguity,” because they “contain provisions which in some aspects are difficult to reconcile with the universal law of the Church.”
Moreover, the Vatican found that the “terminology of these documents is at times vague or imprecise and therefore difficult to interpret.” “Questions also remain concerning the concrete manner in which the procedures outlined in the norms and charter are to be applied in conjunction with the requirements of the Code of Canon Law” and earlier Vatican documents on handling sex abuse cases. The Vatican views were conveyed to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a letter from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, dated Oct. 14.
In his letter Cardinal Re called for “further reflection on and revision of the norms and charter” through a mixed commission made up of four bishops from the United States and four from the Vatican. Bishop Gregory indicated that this commission plans to complete its work before the U.S. bishops meet in Washington on Nov. 11. In the meantime, will the U.S. bishops stop implementing the charter? “No,” said Bishop Gregory. “And the mixed commission has not asked the bishops to stop pursuing the charter.” As a result, the bishops can continue doing what they have been doing for the past four months until they hear otherwise from the commission. Parents can be assured that Cardinal Re’s letter does not mean that abusive priests will be back in parishes tomorrow.
The Vatican response was not surprising. Both Vatican and American canon lawyers (see articles in America by the Rev. Kevin E. McKenna [9/15] and the Rev. John Beal [10/7]) had earlier expressed concerns about protecting the rights of accused priests, to ensure that no innocent priest is punished because of a false accusation. Important details still need to be worked out, such as what is a “credible” accusation, how should an accusation be investigated, how should sexual abuse be defined, does the priest have a right to a trial before a church court or the right to question his accusers, what statutes of limitations and rights of appeal should apply? Cardinal Re’s letter should not be read as a Vatican rejection of the charter—at least not yet. We will have to wait to see what comes from the mixed commission. If the due process questions are resolved satisfactorily, the charter will be improved—as long as it protects both children and innocent priests.
Some critics believe that the U.S. bishops responded to the sexual abuse crisis the way the Department of Justice responded to 9/11—respecting neither due process nor the rights of the accused. But the U.S. bishops at their meeting in Dallas in June quite rightly focused on protecting children. They did not present detailed procedures on how to process accusations, conduct investigations, judge credibility, decide guilt or innocence and process appeals. They did not have the time for this, and if the bishops had provided due process procedures, the media would have examined the legal language under a microscope looking for loopholes. But ultimately these details have to be worked out.
The U.S. criminal justice system deals with these questions every day, and sometimes it fails—despite the trained judges, lawyers and police. Juries have released criminals to the streets and sent innocent people to death row. It is unrealistic to think that the bishops can come up with a perfect system instantaneously. It will be amazing if the mixed commission meets its deadline, although we hope it will settle the most important issues.
But while safeguarding the rights of priests, the focus must continue to be on protecting children and young people. The U.S. bishops adopted a zero-tolerance policy because they recognized that the church’s record of protecting children in the past was abysmal. The bishops did not trust themselves to judge which abusive priests, after conversion and treatment, can be safely returned to ministry. Before the Dallas meeting, we suggested (editorial, 6/3) that any exception to zero tolerance “should require the approval of a lay board and public disclosure of the priest’s past to any community to which he ministers.” Any process that permits secrecy and the making of decisions behind closed doors will not pass muster in today’s church.