Tuesday April 13, 2010

Vatican Reiterates: First Responsibility in Sex Abuse Allegations Lies with the Local Bishop

By Hilary White

ROME, April 13, 2010 ( – The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has issued guidelines for procedures in cases of sex abuse by priests, reiterating that local bishops have the first responsibility to protect young people and to monitor the behavior of their priests.

Under the guidelines posted to the Vatican website on Monday, the responsibility to investigate accusations of abuse by clerics is first that of the local diocese. If it is found that an allegation has “semblance of truth,” then the case, with all documentation, is to be referred to the CDF, whose remit sex abuse allegations have been since 2001.

The guidelines, that dealt only with canonical repercussions of sex abuse allegations, also repeated a point that has always been standard Vatican policy, saying, “Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed.”

The local bishop, however, is still responsible for putting into place measures to protect the community. The CDF notes, “Indeed, the local bishop always retains power to protect children by restricting the activities of any priest in his diocese.”

The CDF says that in “very grave” cases where a priest has already been found guilty in the civil courts, the case may be taken directly to the pope with a request that the priest be automatically dismissed from the clerical state. It notes, “There is no canonical remedy against such a papal decree.”

The note on the responsibilities of local bishops comes amidst the current frenzy of accusations against Pope Benedict, in which it has been repeatedly alleged that he, as the head of the CDF under Pope John Paul II, was personally responsible for covering up or delaying action on cases of clerical abuse that had been proven at the diocesan level. But in each case, closer examination of the facts has shown that there was no Vatican-orchestrated cover-up. Meanwhile, there has been little media censure for the local bishops who bore the initial responsibility for caring for their flocks and monitoring the behavior of their priests.

Many canonists have commented that before 2001, when Pope John Paul gave full authority on sex abuse cases to the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger, the question of who in Rome had jurisdiction over offending priests was vague. But they have pointed out that what has remained constant is the primacy of responsibility of the local bishop. Indeed, the power to remove a priest from the clerical state, to suspend his faculties or remove him from active ministry, has always rested with the local bishop. Many commentators have pointed out that it was the failure of local church authorities to deal competently with the problem that forced the change in procedure at higher levels.

Pope Benedict’s secretary, Msgr. Georg Gänswein told German media today, “It is overlooked too fast that various bishops and bishops’ conferences carry responsibility.”

In the case of Fr. Lawrence Murphy of Milwaukee, which was the subject of a sensational report by the New York Times before Easter, it has largely failed to attract the attention of the press that it was the local diocesan authorities, including Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who did not defrock Murphy and did not report the situation to Rome for nearly 20 years. It has, however, been shown that Cardinal Ratzinger acted correctly when he was finally informed of the case.

In the guidelines issued yesterday, the CDF notes that protecting young people is part of the “ordinary authority” of the bishop, “which he is encouraged to exercise to whatever extent is necessary to assure that children do not come to harm.”

It says that the new guidelines are not intended to change the procedures put in place in 2001, according to the 2001 document “Sacramentorum Sanctitatis tutela,” which gave full authority to the CDF to deal with the sexual abuse crisis.

Read related LSN coverage:

Roots of Sexual Abuse in the Church: Homosexuality, Dissent and Modernism


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