On May 16, 2011, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office charged since 2001 with overseeing cases involving clerical sexual abuse, issued the text of a "Circular Letter to assist Episcopal Conferences in developing Guidelines for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors perpetrated by clerics." (For the sake of brevity, I will refer to the document from here on as the Circular Letter on Sexual Abuse or just the Circular Letter.)
The Circular Letter on Sexual Abuse is composed of three parts:
- General considerations concerning the problem of clerical sexual abuse
- A summary of canon law concerning cases of alleged sexual abuse of a minor by a Catholic cleric (e.g., deacon, priest, or bishop)
- Suggestions for bishops' conferences to take into consideration when drawing up guidelines to be followed by bishops and heads of orders in cases of alleged sexual abuse.
While there is nothing particularly new in the Circular Letter, it is notable for being the most comprehensive set of guidelines released by the Vatican to assist the bishops' conferences of each country in drawing up their own procedures, and for being released to the publication so soon after it was sent to every bishop in the world. (The document was signed and distributed on May 3, 2011, the Feast of Saints Philip and James, Apostles.)
General Considerations Concerning the Problem of Clerical Sexual Abuse:
The Circular Letter outlines five areas that need to be taken into consideration when developing guidelines concerning the problem of clerical sexual abuse:
- The victims of sexual abuse
- The protection of minors
- The formation of future priests and religious
- Support of priests
- Cooperation with civil authority
The actual text concerning each of the five areas is given below, along with my summary and analysis of each section.
The Victims of Sexual Abuse:
The first consideration concerns the victims of sexual abuse:
The Church, in the person of the Bishop or his delegate, should be prepared to listen to the victims and their families, and to be committed to their spiritual and psychological assistance. In the course of his Apostolic trips our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, has given an eminent model of this with his availability to meet with and listen to the victims of sexual abuse. In these encounters the Holy Father has focused his attention on the victims with words of compassion and support, as we read in his Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland (n.6): "You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated."
While the Catholic Church has often been accused (and not without some justification) of putting institutional considerations ahead of concern for the actual victims of clerical sexual abuse, the Circular Letter places concern for the victims ahead of all other concerns.
The reference to the example of Pope Benedict is significant. While Pope Benedict was widely attacked by victims' lawyers and the media in 2010, victims of sexual abuse who have met with him on his travels have generally come away from the meetings satisfied with his response. Bishops need to recognize that, even in this area, their first duty is to act as the shepherd of souls.
The Protection of Minors:
The second consideration concerns programs designed to provide a safe environment for minors in churches and church schools:
In some countries programs of education and prevention have been begun within the Church in order to ensure "safe environments" for minors. Such programs seek to help parents as well as those engaged in pastoral work and schools to recognize the signs of abuse and to take appropriate measures. These programs have often been seen as models in the commitment to eliminate cases of sexual abuse of minors in society today.
While such programs are no doubt well intended and, on balance, do much good, the implementation of such programs in the United States has presented certain problems. For instance, in some dioceses, any parent who wishes to accompany her children on a field trip has to go through the program before she can do so. The result is that parents who do not have the time to complete the program are less involved than they should be, which leaves their children more often in the hands of others. In other words, as currently implemented, such programs may be somewhat counterproductive. These sorts of problems, however, can be overcome through a more flexible implementation of "safe environment" programs.
The Formation of Future Priests and Religious:
The third consideration concerns the formation of future priests, monks, nuns, and other religious:
In 2002, Pope John Paul II stated, "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young" (n. 3, Address to the American Cardinals, 23 April 2002). These words call to mind the specific responsibility of Bishops and Major Superiors and all those responsible for the formation of future priests and religious. The directions given in the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis as well as the instructions of the competent Dicasteries of the Holy See take on an even greater importance in assuring a proper discernment of vocations as well as a healthy human and spiritual formation of candidates. In particular, candidates should be formed in an appreciation of chastity and celibacy, and the responsibility of the cleric for spiritual fatherhood. Formation should also assure that the candidates have an appreciation of the Church’s discipline in these matters. More specific directions can be integrated into the formation programs of seminaries and houses of formation through the respective Ratio institutionis sacerdotalis of each nation, Institute of Consecrated Life and Society of Apostolic Life.
Particular attention, moreover, is to be given to the necessary exchange of information in regard to those candidates to priesthood or religious life who transfer from one seminary to another, between different dioceses, or between religious Institutes and dioceses.
The number of alleged incidences of clerical sexual abuse have dropped dramatically in recent years (in the United States, only six allegations were made in 2009 concerning actions alleged to have taken place in that year, and only seven were made in 2010), which indicates that positive strides have already been taken concerning the formation of priests and religious. This section of the Circular Letter is somewhat circumspect, but from the documents it refers to, it is clear that the mention of "healthy human and spiritual formation of candidates" and "the responsibility of the cleric for spiritual fatherhood" are primarily concerned with candidates for the priesthood who have homosexual tendencies. The vast majority of cases of clerical sexual abuse in the United States over the past have centuries were male on male, and the percentage of male on male cases was even higher among those priests who abused multiple victims.
One other area to which proper attention was not given in the past concerned the transfer of candidates for the priesthood from one diocese to another. If one diocese decided that a candidate was not suitable for the priesthood, that candidate could sometimes move to another diocese and seek ordination there. This section of the Circular Letter makes it clear that dioceses and seminaries must share relevant information about candidates with one another.
The Support of Priests:
The fourth consideration concerns the support of priests:
- The bishop has the duty to treat all his priests as father and brother. With special attention, moreover, the bishop should care for the continuing formation of the clergy, especially in the first years after Ordination, promoting the importance of prayer and the mutual support of priestly fraternity. Priests are to be well informed of the damage done to victims of clerical sexual abuse. They should also be aware of their own responsibilities in this regard in both canon and civil law. They should as well be helped to recognize the potential signs of abuse perpetrated by anyone in relation to minors;
- In dealing with cases of abuse which have been denounced to them the bishops are to follow as thoroughly as possible the discipline of canon and civil law, with respect for the rights of all parties;
- The accused cleric is presumed innocent until the contrary is proven. Nonetheless the bishop is always able to limit the exercise of the cleric’s ministry until the accusations are clarified. If the case so warrants, whatever measures can be taken to rehabilitate the good name of a cleric wrongly accused should be done.
The first point here is quite interesting, because it points to a problem that has rarely been discussed: namely, that those priests who engage in sexual abuse do so not because they are priests but because they are not living their vocation well. In Light of the World, Pope Benedict had suggested that even diocesan priests should live in community with other priests, in order to help each other grow spiritually, and those words are echoed here in the injunction to bishops about "promoting the importance of prayer and the mutual support of priestly fraternity."
The second and third points are very important. Canon law, as well as civil law, is designed to protect both the victim and any innocent cleric. Not all allegations of clerical sexual abuse are true, and an untrue allegation can destroy an innocent priest's life. It is important to balance the possibility of innocence with the need to protect possible future victims; and, if the allegations prove false, the cleric's reputation must be restored as much as possible.
Cooperation with Civil Authority:
The fifth consideration concerns the proper cooperation with civil law and civil authorities:
Sexual abuse of minors is not just a canonical delict but also a crime prosecuted by civil law. Although relations with civil authority will differ in various countries, nevertheless it is important to cooperate with such authority within their responsibilities. Specifically, without prejudice to the sacramental internal forum, the prescriptions of civil law regarding the reporting of such crimes to the designated authority should always be followed. This collaboration, moreover, not only concerns cases of abuse committed by clerics, but also those cases which involve religious or lay persons who function in ecclesiastical structures.
There are a few things to note here. "Although relations with civil authority will differ in various countries" almost certainly refers to the problem of government persecution of the Church, which has sometimes been cited as a reason why clerical sexual abuse cases in, say, Eastern Europe under communist rule were not handed over to the authorities. The Circular Letter, however, says that Church authorities must cooperate with civil authorities even in such circumstances. And that cooperation extends not only to cases of clerical sexual abuse to cases involving anyone employed by the Church in any manner.
Yet the Circular Letter also reaffirms that priests cannot violate the seal of the confessional in order to report cases of sexual abuse. This will not sit well with some victims' advocates, but it is something that is nonnegotiable. This does not mean, of course, that priests should not try to convince those who confess such crimes to turn themselves in; but such considerations have more to do with the earlier point on the formation of priests.
Canon Law Concerning Alleged Sexual Abuse of a Minor by a Catholic Cleric:
In its second section, the Circular Letter on Sexual Abuse contains the most concise summary of canon law concerning allegations of sexual abuse that I have seen. The primary document governing such cases is the motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (SST), issued by Pope John Paul II on April 30, 2001, and revised by Pope Benedict XVI on May 21, 2010. It applies to all clergy in the Catholic Church, Western and Eastern, diocesan and religious.
The canonical statute of limitations on cases of clerical sexual abuse has for decades been much longer than the civil statute of limitation in most states. Today, it is 20 years from the alleged victim's 18th birthday.
While "The responsibility for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors belongs, in the first place, to Bishops or Major Superiors" or religious orders, "If the accusation is considered credible, it is required that the case be referred to the" Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith." While much of the initial commentary on the Circular Letter expressed concern that the bishops remain in charge of cases of alleged sexual abuse, there really is no other way to handle it. Victims are not going to approach the Vatican directly; they are going to go to diocesan officials.
The Circular Letter, however, has made it clear that the Vatican is taking even more control over cases of alleged sexual abuse, which gives bishops more reason to forward the cases on to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF):
Once the case is studied the CDF will indicate the further steps to be taken. At the same time, the CDF will offer direction to assure that appropriate measures are taken which both guarantee a just process for the accused priest, respecting his fundamental right of defense, and care for the good of the Church, including the good of victims. In this regard, it should be noted that normally the imposition of a permanent penalty, such as dismissal from the clerical state, requires a penal judicial process. In accord with canon law (cf. CIC can. 1342) the Ordinary is not able to decree permanent penalties by extrajudicial decree. The matter must be referred to the CDF which will make the definitive judgement on the guilt of the cleric and his unsuitability for ministry, as well as the consequent imposition of a perpetual penalty (SST art. 21, §2).
If a cleric is found guilty of sexual abuse of a minor, his public ministry can be restricted (and he will not be allowed any contact with minors), or he can be subject to "ecclesiastical penalties, among which the most grave is the dismissal from the clerical state." The cleric can also request dismissal "from the obligations of the clerical state, including celibacy," but the decision to grant such a request will only be given pro bono Ecclesiae ("for the good of the Church").
When bishops' conferences draw up guidelines in response to the Circular Letter, those guidelines "must be understood as a complement to universal law and not replacing it." They will have to be approved by the Vatican as well.
Suggestions for Bishops' Conferences Concerning Sexual Abuse Guidelines:
The Circular Letter on Sexual Abuse offers nine suggestions that bishops' conferences should keep in mind while creating their own guidelines for how bishops and the heads of religious orders should handle allegations of clerical sexual abuse. They are listed below:
- 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.
Most of these points were covered earlier, but two in particular bear noting: In some dioceses, panels have been set up to investigate charges of clerical sexual abuse, including panels composed largely of laymen. Point f makes it clear that the primary responsibility for examining such cases still lies with the bishop. And secondly, any guidelines drawn up by bishops' conferences have to take into account the law in the country concerned. If for no other reason, that explains why the Vatican itself cannot impose a uniform set of guidelines on all the dioceses of the world.
The Circular Letter on Sexual Abuse, however, comes as close as possible to a uniform set of guidelines, and the public promulgation of the letter may well herald a new era of openness in the Church concerning discussion of clerical sexual abuse.
Full Text of the Circular Letter on Sexual Abuse:
William Cardinal Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
May 16, 2011; signed on May 3, 2011 (the Feast of Saints Philip and James, Apostles)