A Big Worldwide Step in the Right Direction, The Anchor, May 20, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
May 20, 2011

In March 2010, when Pope Benedict penned a pastoral letter to the Church in Ireland in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis there, he candidly confessed, “No one imagines that this painful situation will be resolved swiftly.” He pointed to areas where progress has been made through an “analysis of mistakes made and lessons learned,” while stressing that “much more remains to be done.”

Just as an individual penitent after sorrowfully confessing his sins must begin and carry out the arduous work of forming and keeping rigorous resolutions, so the Church has been amending its ways based on its deep contrition for the abominations committed against its most vulnerable population by those who were supposed to be models of its highest standards.

The bishops of the United States acted back in 2002 when they formulated and began to implement the imperfect but tough Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and its accompanying essential norms. The Vatican has also changed its ways, transferring the responsibilities of ancient dicasteries to more effective ones, and clarifying and streamlining Church law and protocols, in order to expedite the process whereby dangerous clerics are removed not only from pastoral situations where they might harm the young but also reduced from the clerical state so that they may no longer manipulate the collar to do evil. These and other developments can justly be summarized in the same way Pope Benedict described what was happening in Ireland: progress has been made but much more remains to be done.

One more big step in the right direction happened on Monday when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) sent a “Circular Letter” of guiding principles to all the bishops of the world (see page 14). It contained instructions that every episcopal conference submit to Rome by the end of May 2012 a set of comprehensive, clear and coordinated principles and procedures that the bishops of that region will follow to protect minors from sexual abuse and respond justly and adequately when accusations of abuse are brought forward. Not only does this Vatican directive compel those conferences that still do not have such norms to develop them on short order, but it provides another advance in a coordinated global response by the Church to the evil of sexual abuse across linguistic, geographic and cultural boundaries.

In addition to summarizing all the applicable Church law with regard to the grave crime of the sexual abuse of minors and reviewing the procedures to investigate accusations and punish the accused, the Circular Letter also distills nearly a decades’ worth of reflection by the Vatican and various other ecclesiastical bodies — including much input from the United States — as to what comprehensive approach to the evil of the sexual abuse of minors must include.

The first of five general considerations it presents is that “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.” It’s important that this is placed first, to stress what needs to be the Church’s primary emphasis: In far too many places, those who suffered sexual abuse by clerics and their families were not only not treated with compassion and respect, but in some cases were regarded as troublesome, potential legal adversaries.

The second consideration is that “programs of education and prevention” be developed to ensure “safe environments” for minors. These 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.” It’s noteworthy that the Circular Letter does not mention programs specifically geared toward educating young children about abuse. While such programs have been implemented in most U.S. Dioceses, they have also been criticized by some parents and educators for being too explicit too early about sexual abuse and for creating a sense of suspicion, rather than trust, for adult family members, clergy and teachers. The CDF has left the determination of these programs up to the prudent assessment of the various bishops conferences and, ultimately, to the bishops themselves.

The third general consideration involves the training of future priests and religious to ensure that they have a “healthy human and spiritual formation” and, insofar as possible, will never “harm the young.” Bishops and superiors have the responsibility, the Letter says, to see that candidates not only can live chastely but also have “an appreciation of chastity and celibacy” as well as a capacity for “spiritual fatherhood.” These words indicate that one of the obvious lessons learned by the Church about the clerical sexual abuse scandals is that abuse generally occurred and was allowed to continue in those ecclesiastical context where there was lax discipline with regard to the Church’s teachings on human sexuality in general and to same-sex activity in particular. The new guidelines are also encouraged to address the situation of men seeking to transfer from one diocese or religious institute to another, to make sure that any concerns about the man’s capacity to live the priestly or religious life in its fullness are not forgotten when his address changes.

Fourth, the Letter says that particular attention must be given to priests, in three ways. First, it says, priests need to receive training on the “damage done to victims of sexual abuse,” taught to “recognize the potential signs of abuse perpetrated by anyone in relation to minors” and made aware of their canonical and civil responsibilities with regard to protecting the young and responding whenever crimes are committed against them. The second form of attention, the document says, is that bishops are to relate to their priests as “father and brother.” This does not imply in the least that a bishop should be indulgent to his spiritual son and sibling — especially when the priest is culpable for abusing the bishop’s other and more vulnerable spiritual children and siblings! — but it does mean that he should not allow his relations with his priests to become dominated by diocesan or district attorneys. The third aspect of attention to priests the Circular Letter specifies is that the “accused cleric is presumed innocent until the contrary is proven.” One of the biggest challenges for bishops’ conferences is to translate this universal legal principle into actual protocols, because in those countries that have already approved norms, like the United States, accused priests are treated functionally by the local Church, by victims’ rights groups, and in the much of the secular media as if an accusation is tantamount to a conviction. As recent reports by the U.S. Bishops Conference have shown that the percentage of false accusations against priests is rising, this simple principle of justice must get more attention than it has until now.

The last general consideration concerns cooperation with civil authorities. Because the sexual abuse of minors is not just a canonical but also a civil crime, there should be attention to “what pertains to the obligation of notifying civil authorities.” The document stops short of mandating bishops report all accusations to civil authorities, because in a few countries where governments are evidently corrupt and view the Church as an enemy to be defeated by any means, reporting to such authorities would likely not foster the true cause of justice. Except in those rare circumstances mentioned, however, there is a clear suggestion that the Church actively involve the state in the investigation of whether crimes were committed and, if they were, to punish the malefactors appropriately.

All five of these general considerations are big steps in the right direction. They point to real progress that has been occurring in the Church worldwide in the last decade, as soon as the horror of the extend of the sexual abuse of minors in some segments of the Church began to be brought to light. There is still much work to be done in the formulation and enforcement of these policies, and in remedying unintended consequences, but these steps forward should make anyone who loves the young and loves the Church applaud.