13 April 2010

How the Church deals with cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests

VATICAN CITY, 12 APR 2010 (VIS) - Today the Vatican website, under the section called "Focus", published a guide to understanding the procedures of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [CDF] on sexual abuse allegations towards minors. These are the regulations in force since 2001.

I have highlighted some parts of the document and added [comments].

The applicable law is the Motu Proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (MP SST) of 30 April 2001 together with the 1983 Code of Canon Law. This is an introductory guide which may be helpful to lay persons and non-canonists. [The Code of Canon Law is the collection of the laws of the Church that have been enacted over the centuries in the Latin or Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. the varous laws were put together and promulgated in 1917, when the title Codex Iuris Canonici, Latin for 'Code of Canon Law', was first used. It ws revised in 1983. The Code deals with purely Church matters and is not in conflict with the civil laws of any country.]
A:  Preliminary Procedures
The local diocese investigates every allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric.
If the allegation has a semblance of truth the case is referred to the CDF.  The local bishop transmits all the necessary information to the CDF and expresses his opinion on the procedures to be followed and the measures to be adopted in the short and long term.
Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed. [The Church, ie, Churth authorities, has been criticized, in many cases deservedly, for not reporting crimes to the civil authorities. The Dublin Report, published a few months ago in Ireland, was highly critical of a number of archbishops of Dublin for not applying canon law  well as not reporting crimes to the civil authorities. Had priests been punished by the Church very likely many minors would not have suffered as they did.]
During the preliminary stage and until the case is concluded, the bishop may impose precautionary measures to safeguard the community, including the victims. Indeed, the local bishop always retains power to protect children by restricting the activities of any priest in his diocese.  This is part of his ordinary authority, which he is encouraged to exercise to whatever extent is necessary to assure that children do not come to harm, and this power can be exercised at the bishop's discretion before, during and after any canonical proceeding[In other words, no bishop needs Rome's 'permission' to do what he is supposed to do.] 
B: Procedures authorized by the CDF
The CDF studies the case presented by the local bishop and also asks for supplementary information where necessary.
The CDF has a number of options:
B1 Penal Processes
The CDF may authorize the local bishop to conduct a judicial penal trial before a local Church tribunal. Any appeal in such cases would eventually be lodged to a tribunal of the CDF.
The CDF may authorize the local bishop to conduct an administrative penal process before a delegate of the local bishop assisted by two assessors. The accused priest is called to respond to the accusations and to review the evidence.  The accused has a right to present recourse to the CDF against a decree condemning him to a canonical penalty.  The decision of the Cardinals members of the CDF is final.
Should the cleric be judged guilty, both judicial and administrative penal processes can condemn a cleric to a number of canonical penalties, the most serious of which is dismissal from the clerical state[This is a punishment by the Church. The Church can dismiss a man from the priesthood but can't put him in jail. The civil authorities can put him in jail for the same crime but can't dismiss him from the priesthood. There is no conflict between Church law and civil law.] The question of damages can also be treated directly during these procedures.
B2 Cases referred directly to the Holy Father
In very grave cases where a civil criminal trial has found the cleric guilty of sexual abuse of minors or where the evidence is overwhelming, the CDF may choose to take the case directly to the Holy Father with the request that the Pope issue a decree of "ex officio" dismissal from the clerical state.  There is no canonical remedy against such a papal decree. [In this situation the Church accepts the findings of the civil courts and dismisses a man from the priesthood without his having to go through a Church trial. Both State and Church punish according to the laws proper to them.]
The CDF also brings to the Holy Father requests by accused priests who, cognizant of their crimes, ask to be dispensed from the obligation of the priesthood and want to return to the lay state.  The Holy Father grants these requests for the good of the Church ("pro bono Ecclesiae").
B3 Disciplinary Measures
In cases where the accused priest has admitted to his crimes and has accepted to live a life of prayer and penance, the CDF authorizes the local bishop to issue a decree prohibiting or restricting the public ministry of such a priest.  Such decrees are imposed through a penal precept which would entail a canonical penalty for a violation of the conditions of the decree, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state.  Administrative recourse to the CDF is possible against such decrees.  The decision of the CDF is final. [For example, a priest may be forbidden from celebrating Mass publicly and from engaging in any pastoral work.]
C. Revision of MP SST
For some time the CDF has undertaken a revision of some of the articles of Motu Proprio [This can be translated 'on his own impulse' and is a document coming form the Pope's own initiative and signed by him. It may apply to the whole church or to a groupw within the Church.] Sacramentorum Sanctitatis tutela, in order to update the said Motu Proprio of 2001 in the light of special faculties granted to the CDF by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The proposed modifications under discussion will not change the above-mentioned procedures (A, B1-B3).

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