Worldwide against sexual abuse

Vatican wants to crack down more effectively on clergy sex abuse worldwide. In a circular published Monday, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith calls on all national bishops' conferences to develop their own guidelines for dealing with abuse cases by May 2012.

Within a year, all 112 bishops' conferences worldwide must develop "guidelines for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors by clergy". In doing so, the Vatican wants to set binding basic standards and at the same time encourage local churches to clarify their specific situations. Once again, the Church wants to make clear how urgent it is to take effective and preventive action so that scandals of the kind that have deeply shaken the Church in recent years do not occur again.

Only a few bishops' conferences have developed their own guidelines since the abuse cases, first in the USA, but then also in Ireland, Germany, Australia and other countries, destroyed much trust in the church. Even local churches that have so far been spared these scandals should be equipped not to be caught unprepared, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says. The Italian Bishops' Conference, for example, has not yet developed norms such as those already in place in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. While guidelines exist in the Anglo-American region, the Philippines and Brazil, they hardly exist in Africa.

The new newsletter contains no sensational surprises. It summarizes the current ecclesiastical legislation on these crimes, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last tightened it last July in a letter to all the bishops of the universal Church: it reaffirms the priority of protecting victims and calls for prevention programs and clear guidelines for the selection of candidates for the priesthood. It calls for cooperation with civilian authorities, especially for the mandatory reporting that exists in some states, which "must always be respected" – admittedly while preserving the secrecy of confession.

Adapting to different realities
The basic themes and principles listed in the circular letter must now be adapted to the different realities in the individual countries, the Vatican says. They should facilitate the formulation of national guidelines and thus a unified approach within a bishops' conference. At the same time, the document affirms the fundamental competence of the local bishop. His task and duty is to initiate a preliminary investigation in the case of any serious suspicion and, if the suspicions are confirmed, to report the incident to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. The reviews the case and then returns it to the bishop for further action. The latter must ensure that the rights of all concerned are respected – including that the presumption of innocence applies until proven otherwise. The imposition of indefinite penalties, such as removal from the clergy, again falls within the competence of Rome.

The newsletter contains no reference to possible compensation. This question can only be clarified in the respective national framework, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi stressed to journalists. The text also makes no mention of conditions or the amount of ecclesiastical penalties for offenders. There is no zero-tolerance rule, as the U.S. bishops established in agreement with the Vatican. Although there is talk of a complete ban on the exercise of clerical office for certain cases. But it also says: "The return of a cleric to public pastoral ministry is to be ruled out if that ministry poses a danger to minors or causes a nuisance in the community."A further employment in the church archive is thus not excluded.

By ecclesiastical standards, the deadline of just one year set by the Vatican for the bishops' conferences to draw up their own guidelines is unusually tight. According to Lombardi, this should once again underscore the urgency of confronting the scourge of sexual abuse by clerics and restoring full credibility to the Church.

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Christina Cherry
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