The New York Times
Vatican Tells Bishops
to Set Clear Strategy
By RACHEL DONADIO,
from the Web, May 17, 2011
VATICAN CITY — The Vatican
told bishops worldwide on Monday to make fighting sexual abuse of minors by
clerics a priority, telling them to create “clear and coordinated” procedures by
next year and cooperate with law enforcement authorities when required.
The directives, detailed in a letter, are among the clearest to emerge from the
Vatican since a sexual abuse scandal erupted in Europe last year. But the
recommendations are not binding in church law and do not spell out any
enforcement procedures or punishments for bishops who have been found to have
violated church law.
The guidelines note that the sexual abuse of minors by clerics is not only an
offense punishable by church law, but also “a crime prosecuted by civil law.”
Still, they play down the role of the civilian review boards that have
investigated abuse in Ireland, the United States and elsewhere — and that have
often faulted bishops for not stopping abuse — noting that those boards “cannot
substitute” for bishops’ ultimate authority in adjudicating abuse cases.
The letter’s emphasis on the power of bishops did not go over well with some
victims’ advocates, who have said that the bishops themselves have contributed
to the problem by being more concerned with protecting priests than with
“There’s no enforcement here,” the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests,
a leading victims’ rights group in the United States, said in a statement.
“There are no penalties for bishops who don’t come up with guidelines or who
violate their own guidelines.”
“Until that happens — until top church officials who hide and enable abuse are
severely disciplined — top church officials will continue to hide and enable
abuse,” the group said.
The Vatican said the letter, signed by its chief doctrinal officer, Cardinal
William J. Levada, was essentially aimed at making bishops around the world more
responsive — especially in countries where they had not routinely tackled the
problem of sexual abuse of minors or had even dismissed it.
“The aim of the document is to provide a common denominator for principles that
everyone can bear in mind in making appropriate directives,” the Vatican
spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Monday.
Father Lombardi said the Vatican could not issue universal requirements for
mandatory reporting to civil authorities because it also operated in countries
with repressive governments. “Each reality is different, culturally and
from the point of view of different countries’ laws,” he said.
The letter states that bishops are required to investigate all claims and send
all cases deemed “credible” to the Vatican for review. It says that
bishops should also listen to victims, create “safe environment” programs for
minors and properly screen seminarians.
In March 2010, a sexual abuse scandal swept the Roman Catholic Church in Europe,
with scores of new victims coming forward. And new revelations have
revealed weakness in even the toughest “zero tolerance” norms put in place by
the United States bishops in 2002, which recommend removing a priest from
ministry while claims against him are investigated.
In February, a grand jury in Philadelphia indicted a church official on charges
of child endangerment in connection with the transfer of priests accused of
sexually abusing children, and it also indicted four men, including two priests
and a former priest, on charges of raping or assaulting children.
The grand jury also said it had found “substantial” evidence of abuse by 37
other priests who remained in active ministry at the time of the investigation,
and the archbishop of Philadelphia subsequently suspended 21 of them from
A review board made up of lay people accused the archbishop, Cardinal Justin
Rigali, of failing to be “open and transparent” because the archdiocese screened
the cases that the panel was allowed to examine.
In Ireland, a new report by civil authorities is expected this month, after two
scathing government reports there in recent years showing extensive abuse and
cover-ups by church officials.
The Vatican’s letter on Monday incorporated revisions made last year to the
church’s procedures on prosecuting sexual abuse, including extending the use of
fast-track procedures against priests and doubling the statute of limitations
for disciplinary action against priests to 10 years from the victim’s 18th
It said that local bishops did not have to make their guidelines church law, as
bishops in the United States have done, but could ask the Vatican for permission
to do so.
Asked why it took the Vatican more than a year to issue guidelines that did not
alter church law, Father Lombardi said the letter had to be vetted by multiple
“Obviously, someone can say that at important and urgent moments it’s better to
treat the issue quickly and swiftly, but if there are delicate and complex
issues to consider, it’s good for there to be consensus,” he said.