Vatican to Issue Letter on Abuse Guidelines

By NICOLE WINFIELD | May 12, 2011

The Vatican on Monday will issue a new document designed to help bishops around the world craft guidelines to deal with clerical sex abuse cases, the latest effort by the Holy See to show it is trying to get tough with pedophiles in the clergy.

It’s not clear though, if the letter from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will contain any binding instructions for the bishops themselves or will merely be a set of recommendations for them to consider following.

It is being issued at a time when even the most stringent guidelines in force, the sex abuse norms of the U.S. bishops, have been put into question amid a new scandal in the Philadelphia archdiocese.

The head of the Congregation, Cardinal William Levada, said in November that his office was working on ways to help bishops draft guidelines to deal with abuse cases. Currently, church law requires bishops to investigate every allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric and report it to the Congregation if the accusation has a semblance of truth.

In a closed meeting with cardinals from around the world, Levada spoke of the need for bishops to simultaneously cooperate with law enforcement authorities in reporting abuse cases to police, to better screen priests to weed out potential pedophiles and to take measures to protect young people, the Vatican said at the time.

Levada’s announcement came after the clerical abuse scandal erupted in Europe in early 2010, with hundreds of victims coming forward and evidence that bishops for decades actively shielded pedophiles while the Vatican turned a blind eye.

Levada has said he intended to hold up the U.S. norms as a model for bishops conferences around the world, saying they were a “real success story” that could be used for bishops as well as Boy Scouts and public schools.

The norms were passed in 2002, after the clerical abuse scandal exploded in Boston and spread throughout the country. Approved by the Vatican, the U.S. rules bar credibly accused priests from any public church work while claims against them are under investigation. Diocesan review boards, comprised mostly of lay people, help bishops oversee cases. Clergy found guilty are permanently barred from public ministry and, in some cases, ousted from the priesthood.

Yet as tough as the policy is on paper – and it is church law in the United States – the U.S. norms failed to prevent the latest eruption of the scandal in the United States: a Philadelphia grand jury earlier this year indicted a high-ranking church official on child endangerment charges for allegedly transferring predator priests. Four co-defendants – two priests, an ex-priest and a former Catholic school teacher – are charged with raping children.

The grand jury found “substantial evidence of abuse” committed by at least 37 other priests who remained in active ministry at the time of the report. Philadelphia’s archbishop, Cardinal Justin Rigali, initially insisted that no archdiocesan priests in ministry had an “admitted or established allegation” against them. He later suspended two dozen of the 37 priests.

Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer who was chairman of the U.S. bishops’ child protection board that drafted the U.S. norms, known as the Dallas Norms, said they work well when they are followed and could serve as a model for other countries.

“But as the recent scandal in Philadelphia has demonstrated, you can have the best norms in the world, they mean nothing if the local bishop chooses not to follow them,” Cafardi said in an email.

“The one thing that is lacking in the Dallas Norms, and perhaps the circular letter will address, is some clear way to police the bishops, to make sure they are doing what the norms require, what they have promised they will do to keep our children safe.”

The main U.S. victims group, Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, said a new set of guidelines wouldn’t be very effective since the Vatican has refused to take action against “complicit bishops” who moved abusive priests around.

“As long as top church officials, who ignore, conceal and mishandle child sex cases are praised and promoted, the scandal will continue unabated,” said SNAP’s western director Joelle Casteix.

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