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New Vatican Guidance Urges Clergy To Report Cases Of Sexual Abuse

The Vatican, shown here last month, has issued new guidance on how bishops should respond to allegations of sexual abuse.
The Vatican, shown here last month, has issued new guidance on how bishops should respond to allegations of sexual abuse.

The Vatican on Wednesday published a handbook for clergy and church lawyers that lays out the steps to follow when investigating and reporting alleged cases of sexual abuse of minors and others by priests, deacons and prelates.

A Vatican official described the "vademecum," as the document is titled in Latin, as simply a "tool" for correctly conducting probes into such allegations.

"No new law is being promulgated, nor are new norms being issued," Cardinal Louis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, writes in the in-house outlet Vatican News. "It is, instead, an 'instruction manual' that intends to help whoever has to deal with concrete cases from the beginning to the end."

But the handbook does go further than the instructions Pope Francis issued in a May 2019 apostolic letter titled "You Are the Light of the World." In that missive, the pontiff instructed church authorities to report suspected cases of sexual abuse to civil authorities when required to do so by local laws.

The new document does not condition such reporting on whether it is legally required.

"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," the 16-page manual states, "if this is considered necessary to protect the person involved or other minors from the danger of further criminal acts."

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an entity founded as part of the 15th-century Roman Inquisition to suppress heresy which now defends church doctrine, issued the set of new guidelines to be followed in cases of clergy accused of sexual abuse.

Obeying civil obligations

Complying with subpoenas related to such cases is not presented in the handbook as being optional.

"Whenever civil judicial authorities issue a legitimate executive order requiring the surrender of documents regarding cases, or order the judicial seizure of such documents," the guidelines state, "the Ordinary or Hierarch must cooperate with the civil authorities."

Those investigating reports of sexual abuse are also urged not to try to settle such cases by simply sending the alleged perpetrators elsewhere.

"A decision to be avoided is that of simply transferring the accused cleric from his office, region or religious house," the handbook advises, "with the idea that distancing him from the place of the alleged crime or alleged victims constitutes a sufficient solution of the case."

But the Vatican document also notes that a cleric is under no obligation to report the sexual abuse of a minor or of a mentally or physically infirm adult if he learns of it through a perpetrator's confession.

"It must be pointed out that a report of a delictum gravius [grave crime] received in confession is under ... the strictest bond of the sacramental seal," the manual stipulates. "A confessor who learns of a delictum gravius during the celebration of the sacrament should seek to convince the penitent to make that information known by other means, in order to enable the appropriate authorities to take action."

Some victims' advocates dissatisfied

The frequent use of such words as "should" rather than "must" in the guidance prompted a British group advocating mandatory reporting of sex abuse cases to deride the new handbook's instructions.

"Oh dear, this announcement will thrill the easily pleased," wrote the advocacy group Mandate Now on Twitter. "The *guidance* delivers all the assurance of a bottomless bucket. Reporting to statutory agencies remains *discretionary*."

The co-director of an abuse tracking website also decried the lack of mandatory language in the new Vatican handbook.

"Pope Francis should order every church official to report allegations to civil authorities," Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org told The National Catholic Reporter, noting that church authorities frequently point to the perils of such reporting in certain nations. "The Vatican could specify those unsafe countries, and exempt bishops who work there from the civil reporting obligation."

Assessing accusations

More possible cases of abuse may be investigated under guidance that urges clerics not to dismiss reports coming from anonymous sources.

"The anonymity of the source should not automatically lead to considering the report as false," the handbook advises, adding that when an allegation of sexual abuse "comes from sources whose credibility might appear at first doubtful, it is not advisable to dismiss the matter a priori."

"This is a delicate question," says Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, who is secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a Vatican News interview. "It has become clear that a peremptory attitude in one sense or another is not conducive to the search for truth and justice."

Morandi acknowledges the Catholic Church faces a backlog of unresolved and often unreported cases of sexual abuse by its ordained members.

"The phenomenon is present on all continents, and we are still witnessing reports emerge of old cases, sometimes many years later," he tells Vatican News. "But when this phase of past cases emerging comes to an end, I am convinced (and we all hope so) that the phenomenon we are witnessing today can recede."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.