Action Alert!

Vatican did not tell bishops to avoid reporting abuse-- and reporters missed the real story

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 12, 2016

This week I read dozens of headlines about a new Vatican document that allegedly instructed bishops not to report sex-abuse complaints to the local police. For example:

  • Catholic Church Tells Bishops They Are Not Obliged to Disclose Child Sex Abuse: Report (Time)
  • New Catholic bishops told they don't have to report sexual abuse to police (Newsweek)
  • Catholic bishops not obliged to report clerical child abuse, Vatican says (The Guardian)
  • Vatican: Bishops not required to report abuse to police ( UPI)

Here’s what was wrong about those stories:

  • There was no new document.
  • Neither the “Vatican” nor the “Catholic Church” had taken any new stand on the topic.
  • The controversial statement reflected in the headlines was the personal opinion of a French monsignor.

How did the headlines get so far from the truth? Oddly, every one of the reports cited above gave proper credit to the original source for the story: an item posted on the Crux site on February 7 by the respected Vatican journalist John Allen. But Allen had the story right. Somehow dozens of other journalists read his report and dashed off in the wrong direction.

Here’s what actually happened: At a Vatican-sponsored seminar for newly appointed bishops, one of the invited guests, Msgr. Tony Anatrella, did in fact say that bishops are not required by the Church to report abuse complaints immediately—although local laws may require it. He said that the victims and their families should lodge the complaints.

Msgr. Anatrella is a very influential priest, who has a track record for outspoken pronouncements. He has acted as a consultant to the Vatican, but it is a considerable stretch to identify him as a “Vatican official.” He was speaking as a psychotherapist with some expertise in the field, not as an official representative of the Vatican. In short, he was offering his opinon.

That opinion contrasts sharply with the stated policy of the Vatican, set forth in a May 2011 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which urges bishops to give full cooperation to law-enforcement officials in the reporting abuse complaints. While protecting the sacramental seal, this Vatican document states (and notice this really is a Vatican document), “the prescriptions of civil law regarding the reporting of such crimes to the designated authority should always be followed.”

Msgr. Anatrella’s presentation also contrasts with the policies set forth by the official body established by Pope Francis to deal with sex-abuse policy, the Pontifical Commission for Child Protection. If you really want to know what “the Vatican” thinks about sex-abuse policy, you consult that international commission, chaired by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, rather than a French monsignor.

And now here’s an ironic twist to this story. In his original Crux piece, from which so many reporters drew so many inaccurate conclusions, John Allen was raising a very interesting question. In arranging that seminar for new bishops, why did Vatican officials invite Msgr. Anatrella to speak on the sex-abuse question, and not Cardinal O’Malley? Why wasn’t the papal commission involved in the presentation? In raising those questions, Allen gave secular reporters some valuable leads; they might have followed up, and in the process made some Vatican officials squirm.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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