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New Vatican document on sexual abuse of minors

May 16, 2011

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued a circular letter “to assist episcopal conferences in developing guidelines for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors perpetrated by clerics.” All episcopal conferences will have until May 2012 to complete these guidelines, which will outline “clear and coordinated procedures in dealing with these instances of abuse.”

“Among the important responsibilities of the Diocesan Bishop in his task of assuring the common good of the faithful and, especially, the protection of children and of the young, is the duty he has to give an appropriate response to the cases of sexual abuse of minors by clerics in his diocese,” the letter begins. “Such a response entails the development of procedures suitable for assisting the victims of such abuse, and also for educating the ecclesial community concerning the protection of minors. A response will also make provision for the implementation of the appropriate canon law, and, at the same time, allow for the requirements of civil law.”

The first part of the circular letter offers “general considerations.” The bishop or his delegate, following the example of Pope Benedict, “should be prepared to listen to the victims and their families, and to be committed to their spiritual and psychological assistance.” After stating that “safe environment” programs “have often been seen as models in the commitment to eliminate cases of sexual abuse of minors in society today,“ the letter reminds bishops that seminarians are to be formed in celibacy, chastity, and spiritual fatherhood. “Particular attention, moreover, is to be given to the necessary exchange of information in regard to those candidates to priesthood or religious life who transfer from one seminary to another, between different dioceses, or between religious Institutes and dioceses.”

In addition, “the bishop has the duty to treat all his priests as father and brother … 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, with respect for the rights of all parties. The accused cleric is presumed innocent until the contrary is proven. Nonetheless the bishop is always able to limit the exercise of the cleric’s ministry until the accusations are clarified. If the case so warrants, whatever measures can be taken to rehabilitate the good name of a cleric wrongly accused should be done.”

“Sexual abuse of minors is not just a canonical delict but also a crime prosecuted by civil law,” the circular letter emphasizes, adding:

Although relations with civil authority will differ in various countries, nevertheless it is important to cooperate with such authority within their responsibilities. Specifically, without prejudice to the sacramental internal forum, the prescriptions of civil law regarding the reporting of such crimes to the designated authority should always be followed. This collaboration, moreover, not only concerns cases of abuse committed by clerics, but also those cases which involve religious or lay persons who function in ecclesiastical structures.

In the second part of the circular letter, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith summarizes the Church’s canonical norms on the sexual abuse of minors. In the third and final section, the Congregation offers nine “observations” that episcopal conferences should “take into account” as they develop their guidelines:

  • the sexual abuse of minors is defined as a sin against the Sixth Commandment with someone under 18
  • the one reporting abuse “ought to be treated with respect” and has the right to anonymity if the allegation involves Confession
  • “ecclesiastical authority should commit itself to offering spiritual and psychological assistance to the victims”
  • “investigation of accusations is to be done with due respect for the principle of privacy and the good name of the persons involved”
  • “unless there are serious contrary indications, even in the course of the preliminary investigation, the accused cleric should be informed of the accusation, and given the opportunity to respond to it”
  • “consultative bodies of review and discernment concerning individual cases, foreseen in some places, cannot substitute” for the authority of individual bishops
  • “the 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”
  • “during the course of the disciplinary or penal process the accused cleric should always be afforded a just and fit sustenance”
  • “the return of a cleric to public ministry is excluded if such ministry is a danger for minors or a cause of scandal for the community”

"The Guidelines developed by Episcopal Conferences seek to protect minors and to help victims in finding assistance and reconciliation," the letter concludes. "They will also indicate that the responsibility for dealing with the delicts of sexual abuse of minors by clerics belongs in the first place to the Diocesan Bishop. Finally, the Guidelines will lead to a common orientation within each Episcopal Conference helping to better harmonize the resources of single Bishops in safeguarding minors."


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