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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops' charter

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Transmitted 01/20/2004 11:31 AM ET

Vatican official says U.S. abuse norms are complex but are working

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- As U.S. dioceses implement stricter sex abuse policies and deal with accused priests, they have a quiet but watchful partner in the Vatican.

The norms for responding to alleged sexual abuse of minors by priests were worked out between U.S. bishops and Vatican officials in a highly publicized series of meetings in 2002. They give bishops a number of options in dealing with accused priests, with the Vatican retaining oversight and final decision-making authority in most cases.

The system is necessarily complex and deliberate but, more importantly, it is working, said Msgr. Charles Scicluna, a Vatican doctrinal official who deals directly with many of the cases.

"Obviously, we're all on a learning curve. These cases are being handled as we speak," Msgr. Scicluna said in an interview in mid-January.

But he said the U.S. norms, in tandem with the Vatican's more universal rules for such cases, are proving fair and workable. Some priests have been permanently removed from ministry, some have been laicized and some have been scheduled for a church trial, he said.

Along the way, Vatican and U.S. experts have had to jointly confront procedural problems.

"There is a great sense of cooperation, and that is very important," Msgr. Scicluna said.

While the measures against abusive priests are strong, the process has adequately protected the rights of the accused and offered him a chance to appeal the decision of bishops and the Vatican, he said.

As the "promoter of justice" at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Msgr. Scicluna acts as a type of prosecutor in the sex abuse cases. He said that under the new rules there are five basic options for dealing with sex abuse accusations against priests:

-- The priest, penitent for his behavior and recognizing that it is incompatible with his ministry, requests laicization from the pope.

-- Even when not requested by the priest, the pope can decide to dismiss the priest from the clerical state. This is done only in grave and clear cases, a "process of last resort," Msgr. Scicluna said.

Typically, the doctrinal congregation makes the request for forced laicization on the recommendation of the local bishop, he said. It is anything but "pro forma." Pope John Paul II, for example, asks questions and studies the facts of the case before making his decision, Msgr. Scicluna said. The pope's decision is not subject to appeal or review.

-- A bishop or the Vatican can impose a penalty on the priest using an administrative penal process (described in canon 1720 of the Code of Canon Law) without going through a church trial. If the bishop decides that the penalty is permanent dismissal from the clerical state, he needs approval from the Vatican's doctrinal congregation; if he decides on a lesser penalty, he can decree it on his own authority.

This solution is used in cases where the facts are so apparently clear as to make a church trial unnecessary. But a priest does have recourse, by presenting an appeal before the full membership -- cardinals and bishops -- of the doctrinal congregation.

-- A trial of the accused priest can be conducted, typically by diocesan tribunals. These are church trials and the penalties are spiritual, as opposed to civil trials that may carry jail terms or other penalties. The decisions and penalties of the diocesan court can be appealed by the priest to the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, which reviews all diocesan trials. As promoter of justice, Msgr. Scicluna can also appeal the local decision, for example, if he believes a conviction was warranted for a priest who was absolved.

-- In cases where a priest known to have been abusive cannot be prosecuted under church law for technical reasons, a disciplinary action can still be imposed on him -- such as limiting or removing him from direct ministry or, after consulting with psychological experts, declaring him impeded from the exercise of ministry.

The priest can appeal these disciplinary measures to officials of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation or to the full membership of the congregation.

The process of investigating and reviewing sex abuse cases is a burdensome task for the doctrinal congregation. The cases present some problems well-known to U.S. church officials, Msgr. Scicluna said.

A basic issue for the Vatican is defining in greater detail what kind of sexual abuse constitutes a "delictum gravius," or "more grave crime," over which the doctrinal congregation has been given specific authority. The doctrinal congregation has determined that since church law refers to "a sin against the Sixth Commandment with a minor" such abuse does not necessarily involve physical contact.

For example, it can involve exposing minors to pornography or, even less directly, the downloading of pedophile pornography on the Internet.

There are more general problems processing sex abuse cases: Allegations often are made many years after the abuse occurred, making it difficult to gather evidence and interview witnesses, and the allegations sometimes are denied -- by an accused priest or, more rarely, by a victim.

Many times, the church court must base its judgment on "moral certainty" of the crime, as opposed to the discovery of incontestable evidence, Msgr. Scicluna said.

The relationship of church investigations to civil law is a delicate and important issue, he said. In many cases, civil proceedings against an abusive priest give the Vatican and local bishops the kind of clear evidence needed to take steps against the priest and often remove the need for a lengthy church trial.

"It weighs heavily. It's not the only criterion, but it's a very strong argument," said Msgr. Scicluna.

One sign of the importance given to civil trials is that church officials are ready to suspend a canonical investigation in order not to disturb a civil investigation, he said.

The care taken in reviewing cases of clerical sexual abuse, combined with the relatively small number of experts available to the doctrinal congregation, means that many cases are taking months to resolve. In the case of a trial, the time is even longer.

But Msgr. Scicluna said that is a necessary price to pay.

"It would be a grave injustice to hurry up a case and not study it properly. We owe it to everyone concerned -- to the priests, the victims, the bishops and the people of God -- to study each case carefully," he said.

Msgr. Scicluna said that despite concerns when the norms were adopted the rights of priests have been guaranteed at every step of the process. Even if there is an administrative process against a priest in lieu of a church trial, he said, three key elements are present: The accused knows the allegations, he has the right to respond and he has the right to appeal.

In working on sex abuse cases, Msgr. Scicluna said, the Vatican has followed two main principles: "If a person is a risk to minors, he should not be in ministry, and if his ministry is a scandal to the community, he should not be in ministry."

That policy stems from the pope's statement in 2002 that "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."

Sometimes removal from ministry is not enough, and the priest is also removed from the priesthood. It is the gravity of the offense -- something measured case by case -- that takes it to this second step, Msgr. Scicluna said.

He said that in implementing the new policies the Vatican and U.S. bishops have the health of the whole church in mind.

"Some say we're trying to protect the institution. No -- the procedures are there to protect the people of God," he said.

END

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