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Vatican canonist outlines path to deal with the ‘shameful plague’ of clergy sexual abuse

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ANALYSIS

ROME, March 13, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Following the Vatican’s summit on clergy sexual abuse, a canonist for the Roman Rota, the Vatican’s highest appellete court, has outlined six important points for dealing with what he calls “this shameful plague” in the Church.

Mauro Visigalli seeks to dispel commonplace misconceptions, offering his own unique insights as a Church lawyer who has in his capacity as a canonist seen more than 100 cases of clergy sexual abuse in Italy and the U.S.

Visigalli begins with a stunning revelation: The entity within the the Church which is designed to handle clergy sexual abuse, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), is gravely understaffed and unable to handle the burgeoning clergy sex misconduct caseload now before it. He notes, quite amazingly, that there are fewer than ten canon lawyers in place to handle such cases for the entire Church, and only a few speak English. Because of this, the CDF routinely delegates its responsibility to local courts which don’t always possess the expertise to handle such cases.  

Bishops are scared. They worry about both public opinion and Vatican oversight which combine to sway their judgment. In order to calm themselves and avoid difficulties, they accept as “credible” every allegation, sacrificing priests who have merely been accused. Although this makes bishops’ lives easier, Visigalli says this is “the shortest way to Church destruction.”

Priests are too easily presumed guilty, simply because an accusation has been made against them. Visigalli says that priests are often denied justice through “infinitely renewable suspensions, pastoral measures which are more punitive than penalties would be, and delayed and denied processes” which circumvent the important, often hard work of discovering the truth. In this way, an allegation of sexual abuse can become “an easy way to remove an unpleasant priest or a competitor in a canonical position.”  

Visigalli warns that the collective hysteria about abusive priests has created an environment where “priest = sexual abuser” is a commonly accepted equation. This not only sullies Church’s image, but the sheer profusion of allegations creates a fog which provides cover for the clerics who are the real abusers.  

The canon lawyer also worries about the use of social media through which suspicion is spread, sometimes smearing the reputations good of priests. The practice is “devastating for good priests, useless for the faithful, dangerous for the Church, and convenient for real criminals.”

While the solution to clergy sexual abuse will be found in the technical juridical competence of the judges handling these cases, that solution remains evermore elusive as funding and personnel are cut from budgets throughout the Church.  

Some priests and prelates, because of their connections or friendships, have escaped the normal slow road to justice, have avoided being formally suspended, and have sometimes even been promoted to higher functions within the Church.

The full text of Mauro Visigalli’s remarks is provided below:

Dear Director,

As are most Catholics, I am saddened by and worried about the sexual abuses in the Church. This is why I followed with attention the recent synod, as I have become accustomed to following — personally as a “christifidelis” and professionally as an “avvocato rotale” — the news about this shameful plague. Of course, my work, both in Italy and in USA, offers me a privileged point of view: I examined and discussed at the Roman Curia more than a hundred such cases. This is why I desire to share some thoughts and to highlight some points to avoid confusion (there is already enough of that!) and to contradict some commonplace misconceptions. I will try to organize my thoughts in a short list:

  1. The Catholic Church has valid laws to fight the abuses. There is not, as many are used to saying, any need of new legislation (least of all of a dangerous “emergency lane”!). The “Normae de Gravioribus Delictis” (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter issued “Motu Proprio” “Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela,” given on April 30, 2001) are a very good and efficient law text, if correctly applied together with the Code of Canon Law. The problem is indeed in their application: the intention of the law was to confer to a specifical Vatican Ministry — like the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, having a team of skilled canonists — the judgment of the most grave delicts, the sexual ones included. Unfortunately the cases are many, and the canonists are few (currently fewer than ten, not all of them English-speaking), so it often happens that the spirit of the law is betrayed, and the Vatican delegates local tribunals for the judgment. This is risky for many reasons: not every tribunal has expert canonists, and local tribunals are more easily influenced.
     
  2. You cannot serve both public opinion and justice. It is normal that the bishops are worried about “public opinion” and frightened by the Vatican proclamations about “zero tolerance,” but the “emotional answer” always generates legal monsters, and legal monsters always promote crimes instead of discouraging them. In addition “zero tolerance” is a slogan: the judges have to be right, not to be harsh or merciful. I remember a letter found in the folder of one of my cases: a bishop wrote to the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asking for the conviction of the accused priest because, he said, “every absolution is a wound to my authority.” I will not comment about the conscience of this bishop, believing that his authority is more important than justice; I simply notice that bishops should not follow public opinion, but this is exactly what they usually do. I even know cases of priests still suspended after their innocence was demonstrated, so as not to have to  deal with people’s complaints. As a matter of fact, I notice that many bishops are currently promoting the canonists who are inclined to write sentences of guilt and pushing out canonists believing in the right of defense as a cornerstone of every legal system. Accepting as “credible” every allegation and sacrificing every accused priest make for an easy way to avoid difficulties, but this is also the shortest way to Church destruction.
     
  3. Procedural laws are not an irritating obstacle, but a way to ensure Justice. People — at least as long as they themselves are not the ones being accused — are more inclined to presume guilt than innocence. Those who think this way consider prescription an “attorney’s trick”: they never consider how difficult and frustrating it is to have to deny an accusation of someone publicly trying to destroy you by saying, “Forty years ago, you touched me in the confessional.” The same is to be said about all the law warranties expressed to grant the right of defense: denying an accused priest the knowledge of all the proofs and documents related to his case, trying “shortcuts” (infinitely renewable suspensions, pastoral measures heavier than penalties, delayed and denied processes, etc.) to obtain the desired result instead of honestly seeking the truth, bullying priests to obtain civil plea bargains. Not only are these the wrong way to fight crimes, but they are crimes themselves. Whatever is outside the legal way is not legal, and every abuse generates new abuses. I know from my experience how often an allegation of sexual abuse (even an anonymous one) can become an easy way to remove an unpleasant priest or a competitor in a canonical position. We also have to consider that if such procedures become a blindly wielded club, the penalty loses its deterrent effect.
     
  4. Most allegations are unsubstantiated. I was reading, a few days ago, the statistics of a diocese having about 700 active priests, more than 500 of them under accusation for sexual crimes. This is simply absurd! There is no better place to hide an apple than in a basket of apples. This collective hysteria about abusing priests is not only damaging the image of the Church, but — and this is the worst thing — allowing the real abusers to cover their crimes. Do not misunderstand me: the fight against abuses is the real goal of my considerations. I want the guilty ones discovered and punished. But I see a big, foggy confusion (in part maliciously created) that does not help to do that seriously. My complaint does not arise from the interests of an advocate, but from the sadness of a member of the Christian faithful who sees that “priest = sexual abuser” is becoming a commonly accepted equation. I abhor — as a person and as a jurist — reading sentences (I report one only example) declaring someone guilty because “his action was not concretely an abuse, but the victim could have interpreted it as an intention to abuse” — first of all, because if there was not an act of abuse, then there was not a victim, and secondly, because a penal process is finalized not to satisfy the accuser, but to ascertain the responsibility of the accused. Investigators are often forgetting that sexual crimes are normally a habit, not an episode: one could have killed once, or robbed for episodic reasons, but no one abuses for episodic reasons. A sexual predator repeats his crimes every time he feels the urge to do that, so I am always skeptical when I hear about someone who kissed an altar server once in his life or — this is a very recent report — of an apostolic nuncio more than 70 years old who decides to finally come out with his perverted passions and touches the buttocks of the male guests at an embassy reception!
     
  5. Information about crimes cannot become “normalization” of crimes. We are witnessing the multiplication (also on Facebook, where people are used to posting pictures of the last barbecue on the beach, of the pet, or the steak at the local restaurant) of “blacklists” containing the names of priests “credibly accused.” Guilty or innocent, they are smeared forever after having dedicated their whole lives to the Church. Sometimes we even find — not only on the “bounty hunter” websites, but also in the diocesan ones — the names of dead priests...and these are the lucky ones. We see on the web page of every diocese red buttons and phone numbers so everyone can easily send in his accusation, and everyone can infer that such crimes are a normal matter in the Church. The most “creative” dioceses encourage the denunciation of sexual abuses, even using phrases like “we have the highest number of refunds” (what a glorious finish!). This is not a way to inform, but simply a way to lose credibility and to encourage false accusations. I agree that a priest who is credibly accused has to be immediately “quarantined” to avoid any possible further crime, but this simply means to temporarily remove him from potentially dangerous appointments, to keep him under surveillance, and to share the information with the police. The investigation (and later the process, if needed) has to be started as soon as possible. Spreading suspicions in the meantime is devastating for good priests, useless for the faithful, dangerous for the Church, and convenient for real criminals.
     
  6. The only possible solution to this plague is in the technical juridical competence of the judges, and the impartiality of the controllers. It is not a mystery for anyone that nowadays, the resources — both financial and human — of ecclesiastical tribunals are more and more cut. There are a few bishops more sensitive to the legal matter, who understand the necessity in their dioceses of trained and skilled canonists managing the investigations and the processes, but there are also many who, for the reasons we considered above, are satisfied if their tribunals can answer every accusation with a conviction. This is the reason why, in my experience with many different tribunals all over the world, I met some valuable and expert persons, but I also met many judges who had not even the smallest idea of the basic principles of law. (In a recent sentence, for example, I read that a cited priest is not a party to the process and cannot appeal!) We already spoke about the vicious consequences of this situation, but there is one painful note to add: the “guilty machine” does not function in the same way for all priests. We all know the current controversy about the Vatican managing the cases of some “privileged” priests accused of sexual abuse. These are an absolute minority compared to the many processed and (rightly or unjustly) convicted ones, but they were not thrown in the media grinder (at least until their cases became so burning that it was impossible to ignore them), not formally suspended, sometimes also promoted to higher functions.

As a conclusion, I do not think the Church systematically “covers” sexual abuses, but I think the first step in this battle should be oriented to grant a seriously and impartially applied procedure to all cases, regardless the ecclesiastical dignity of the accused priest and, in the meantime, to respect — until a conviction is pronounced — the good name of the accused ones. This is the reason why I find almost barbarian the proposal to relieve from “pontifical secrecy” such procedures.

I hope these simple thoughts can offer the spark for a deeper reflection about this painful matter and dispel some commonplace misconceptions about the way such cases are usually managed by the Church. Some important matters depend on a correct answer to the abuses — not only the dignity and the safety of many good priests, but also the safety of potential victims, the future of the Church, and the serenity of the Christian faithful. I also thank those who will host and read my reflection, warmly greeting everyone.

Mauro Visigalli, Avvocato Rotale

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