Today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a "circular letter" to bishops conferences worldwideasking them to develop guidelines for responding to abuse allegations. The letter is intended to help bishops formulate these guidelines--the letter itself doesn't contain new rules. Although, according to Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the CDF,the guidelines should involve the major superiors of religious institutes, to make sure both diocesan and religious priests are covered. (Bishops lack the canonical authority to suspend religious priests--an issue that has caused a great deal of confusion in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.) Bishops are to send the new rules to the CDF by May 2012.Here's what the CDF is asking bishops to keep in mind while writing their guidelines.
The letter begins where it should, with the victims. It stresses the example of Benedict XVI, who made himself available to meet with abuse victims during his recent apostolic trips. The bishop "should be prepared to listen to the victims and their families, and to be committed to their spiritual and psychological assistance." The CDF also notes the value of safe-environment programs, which "have often been seen as models in the commitment to eliminate cases of sexual abuse of minors in society today."Next the letter addresses the formation of priests. Without mentioning the so-called ban on men with "deep seated" homosexual tendencies from the priesthood--the CDF reminds the bishops that candidates "should be formed in an appreciation of chastity and celibacy, and the responsibility of the cleric for spiritual fatherhood." Bishops should treat their priests as fathers and brothers. They must ensure that their priests' formation doesn't end after ordination. For example, priests "are to be well informed of the damage done to victims of clerical sexual abuse."What's more, the CDF emphasizes the importance of sharing information about candidates who move around during formation--whether from one seminary to another, one diocese to another, or one religious community to another.Of course, the CDF also points out what canon and civil law has always held: the accused is "presumed innocent until the contrary is proven." Bishops should do whatever it takes to rehabilitate the reputation of a falsely accused priest. Yet, "the bishop is always able to limit the exercise of the clerics ministry until the accusations are clarified." That's something too many bishops have either forgotten or ignored throughout the scandal.While recognizing that "relations with civil authority will differ in various countries"--an important consideration --theletter urges bishops to cooperate with civil authorities, especially when it comes to following reporting laws. And not just when it comes to allegations against priests.The second part of the letter summarizes the relevant canon laws. Nothing surprising there. In 2001, John Paul II made the sexual abuse of a minor by a priest a grave canonical crime. At that time, the statute of limitation for such a crime was extended to ten years from the victim's eighteenth birthday. In 2010, Benedict XVI extended the statute to twenty years from the victim's eighteenth birthday. The CDF has jurisdiction over such cases, and is free to ignore the statute of limitation on a case-by-case basis.Once the bishop deems an accusation credible, he must refer the case to the CDF, which will then offer guidance on dealing with the accused. The letter also points out that "it remains the duty of the Bishop or the Major Superior to provide for the common good by determining what precautionary measures of CIC can. 1722 and CCEO can. 1473 should be imposed. In accord with SST art. 19, this can be done once the preliminary investigation has been initiated." That means that once an investigation has been initiated--which could mean as little as a bishop forwarding the case to his review board--he has the authority to suspend a (diocesan) priest. That's also something too many bishops have gotten wrong.Finally, the letter ends with a list of recommendations. Here they are:
a.) the notion of "sexual abuse of minors" should concur with the definition of article 6 of the motu proprio SST ("the delict against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue committed by a cleric with a minor below the age of eighteen years"), as well as with the interpretation and jurisprudence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, while taking into account the civil law of the respective country;b.) the person who reports the delict ought to be treated with respect. In the cases where sexual abuse is connected with another delict against the dignity of the sacrament of Penance (SST art. 4), the one reporting has the right to request that his or her name not be made known to the priest denounced (SST art. 24).;c.) ecclesiastical authority should commit itself to offering spiritual and psychological assistance to the victims.d.) investigation of accusations is to be done with due respect for the principle of privacy and the good name of the persons involved;e.) unless there are serious contrary indications, even in the course of the preliminary investigation, the accused cleric should be informed of the accusation, and given the opportunity to respond to it.f.) consultative bodies of review and discernment concerning individual cases, foreseen in some places, cannot substitute for the discernment and potestas regiminis of individual bishops;g.) the Guidelines are to make allowance for the legislation of the country where the Conference is located, in particular regarding what pertains to the obligation of notifying civil authorities;h.) during the course of the disciplinary or penal process the accused cleric should always be afforded a just and fit sustenance;i.) the return of a cleric to public ministry is excluded if such ministry is a danger for minors or a cause of scandal for the community.
These are sound recommendations. The victims come first and last. Bishops are urged to listen to victims. To train their priests to understand the terrible effects of sexual abuse. Bishops are reminded of their duties under canon law--as well as their freedom to suspend accused priests before a final determination has been made. Priests can't be returned to public ministry if they pose a threat to minors--or if their reinstatement would scandalize the community. Is 2011 a bit late for Rome to be issuing such guidance? Without a doubt. A letter like this should have gone out under John Paul II. But we have the letter now, and the delay doesn't make it any less important for the bishops of the world to heed.Much has been made of the sentence pointing out that consultative review boards cannot substitute for the discernment and ruling power (potestas regiminis)of the bishop. While it's true that some bishops have treated their review boards as little more than window dressing, it is simply a statement of canonical fact that such bodies cannot replace the role of the bishop. That need not be read as a criticism of review boards. Rather, that sentence--along with the whole letter--may be viewed as an attempt to get bishops to do their job.