Vatican Urges New Rules on Abuse by Clergy

by Rachel Donadio (New York Times)
May 16,2011

The Vatican on Monday told bishops worldwide to make fighting sexual abuse of minors by clerics a priority, demanding that they create "clear and coordinated" procedures by next year and cooperate with civil law when required.

The letter is one of the clearest Vatican directives since a sexual abuse scandal erupted in Europe last year. But its recommendations were not binding and stopped short of universalizing the so-called "zero-tolerance" norms in place in the United States and other countries, in which a priest is removed from ministry while claims against him are investigated.

The guidelines noted that the sexual abuse of minors by clerics is not only punishable by church law but is also "a crime prosecuted by civil law." But they played down the role of civilian review boards that have been investigating abuse in some countries, including Ireland, saying they "cannot substitute" for bishops' ultimate authority in adjudicating abuse cases.

The Vatican said the document was essentially aimed at making bishops around the world more responsive — especially in countries where they have not routinely tackled the problem of sexual abuse of minors — or even dismissed it.

"The aim of the document is to provide a common denominator for principles that everyone can bear in mind in making appropriate directives," the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said on Monday. "Each reality is different, culturally and from the point of view of different countries' law."

The letter appeared to address the concerns of some bishops who had complained in the past of confusion over procedures. It stated that local bishops were required to investigate all claims and send all cases deemed "credible" to the Vatican for review.

But victims' rights groups complained the letter did not go far enough. "Where's the beef?" the Survivors' Network for Those Abused by Priests, a leading victims' rights groups in the United States, said in a statement. "There's no enforcement here. There are no penalties for bishops who don't come up with guidelines or who violate their own guidelines."

"Until that happens — until top church officials who hide and enable abuse are severely disciplined — top church officials will continue to hide and enable abuse," it said.

The guidelines incorporated revisions made last year to the church's procedures in prosecuting sexual abuse, including extending the use of fast-track procedures against priests and doubling the statute of limitation for disciplinary action against priests to 10 years from the victim's 18th birthday.

The letter came after a sex abuse scandal swept the Catholic Church in Europe in March 2010, calling into question the actions of the pope himself, who as archbishop of Munich in the early 1980s had presided over a diocese where a known pedophile was transferred.

Asked why it took the Vatican more than a year to issue guidelines that did not alter church law, Father Lombardi said that the letter had to be vetted by multiple Vatican offices. "Obviously, someone can say that at important and urgent moments, it's better to treat the issue quickly and swiftly, but if there are delicate and complex issues to consider, it's good for there to be consensus," he said.