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Vatican gives bishops new guidelines on sex-abuse complaints

July 16, 2020

The Vatican has issued new guidelines to the world’s bishops for the handling of sex-abuse complaints.

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The new document, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on July 16, does not establish new canonical rules, but offers answers to questions about how bishops should respond to allegations. The 30-page document, styled a Vademecum, is designed as instructional tool for bishops as they carry out enforcement of existing canon law.The Vademecum concentrates on four essential challenges for diocesan policy in the handling of sex-abuse complaints.

  1. Respect for the rights of individuals. The CDF exhorts bishops to “ensure that the alleged victim and his or her family are treated with dignity and respect.” That respectful treatment should be shown to the complainant immediately, the document notes—not only in cases when substantial evidence is readily available to support the accusation. At the same time, the CDF reminds bishops that accused clerics have the right to defend themselves, even if “the commission of the delict is manifestly evident.” Among those rights, the Vademecum notes, the accused has “the right to present a petition to be dispensed from all the obligations connected with the clerical state...”
  2. Careful verification. Every report and allegation should be thoroughly investigated, the CDF says. Even if no formal complaint has been lodged, any report should be diligently pursued to determine whether abuse has occurred. Dioceses are asked to be attentive to anonymous complaints and internet rumors. The Vatican notes, however, that the seal of confession remains inviolable.
  3. Communication. During an investigation, the CDF says, diocesan officials should not divulge anything from confidential inquiries. Particularly in the early stages of an investigation, when it is not clear whether abuse has occurred, Church officials should not make accusations public. However, neither an alleged victim nor witnesses are under any obligation to remain silent. The Vademecum advises bishops to be mindful that documents created during an investigation might be made public—either by third parties or by a judicial order for disclosure.
  4. Church-state collaboration. The Vademecum asks bishops to collaborate with public authorities in enforcing civil laws, and advises that “even in cases where there is no explicit legal obligation to do so, the ecclesiastical authorities should make a report to the competent civil authorities if this is considered necessary to protect the person involved or other minors from the danger of further criminal acts.”

The CDF indicates that this is the first what is anticipated as a series of occasional updates to give bishops the best available guidance. Given the seriousness of the abuse scandal, bishops are expected to familiarize themselves with the established Church regulations and the reasons for them. The document notes:

Only a profound knowledge of the law and its aims can render due service to truth and justice, which are especially to be sought in matters of graviora delicta by reason of the deep wounds they inflict upon ecclesial communion.

 


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