Vatican urges bishops not to dismiss sex abuse claims

Pope Francis celebrates Mass last year to conclude his extraordinary summit of Catholic leaders summoned to Rome for a tutorial on preventing clergy sex abuse.

By In the latest attempt to address its long-running crisis over clergy sex abuse, the Vatican on Thursday published guidelines for bishops that lay out how to handle such cases and direct them not to dismiss accusations that are submitted anonymously, seem vague or appear initially dubious.

The guidelines do not include any changes to church law, and they continue to give bishops some latitude as they conduct preliminary investigations into abuse claims. But they amount to a formal manual for what the Catholic Church considers best practices — at a time when it has pledged to act with more transparency after years of bruising scandal.

As part of the guidelines, bishops should report claims to civil authorities if it is “considered necessary to protect the person involved or other minors from the danger of further criminal acts.”

Church officials are not explicitly mandated to inform police of claims, but some analysts pointed to the new handbook as a sign that the idea of cooperation might be prevailing within the church.

“This is something that, little by little, is gaining ground,” said Davide Cito, a canon lawyer at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. “Instead of keeping it in-house and not telling anybody, you’re told to inform the civil authorities.”

The church has struggled for years with how to help its leaders field and investigate abuse claims, with some advocates and abuse victims saying that some bishops’ impulses are still to shield the church from scandal and disrepute. Several high-profile cases in recent years have exploded as a result of bishops, who are answerable only to the pope, covering up claims.

In a question-and-answer document released alongside the guidebook, a Vatican communications official noted that in the past, abuse complaints received anonymously were “simply thrown out.”

“Ignoring [a claim] just because it is not signed would be wrong,” said Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, an official in the Vatican’s disciplinary department.

The level of outside pressure on the church has diminished during the pandemic, with global attention focused on the virulent coronavirus that has killed hundreds of thousands, and advocate groups have been unable to hold events. But the guidebook was more than a year in the making; some officials had talked about the idea in February 2019, when Pope Francis convened leading bishops from across the world to discuss the church’s clerical abuse crisis.

Since that summit, Francis has overhauled how the church is supposed to investigate abuse claims against bishops and has abolished a “pontifical secrecy” rule in an attempt to open the door for information-sharing with civil authorities.

The document released Thursday treads into new territory primarily by detailing guidance for all the small decisions a bishop might face when handling a claim.

In practice, bishops conduct preliminary investigations and then hand over their findings to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a final decision and possible trial.

According to the guidelines, bishops should keep documentation if a claim is deemed to be unfounded. They should avoid simply transferring an accused priest under “the idea that distancing him from the place of the alleged crime or alleged victims constitutes a sufficient solution of the case.” If they make public statements, the comments should be “brief and concise, avoiding clamorous announcements.”

One particularly “sensitive” task, according to the guidelines, is determining when to inform the priest who is being accused.

The church said that there is no uniform criterion and that bishops must essentially make a judgment call — one that takes into account protecting “the good name of the persons involved,” the possibility of compromising the preliminary investigation or “giving scandal to the faithful.”

Once a preliminary investigation has finished, the bishop must send the relevant information to the Vatican, along with suggestions about how to proceed. The documents, the Vatican said, should be sent in a “single copy,” authenticated by a notary.

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