New Vatican Guidelines on Abuse

The Vatican released guidelines for bishops and archbishops on handling child abuse, as promised at Pope Francis’ summit last February. The guidelines have received widespread coverage and lavish praise from both the mainstream and religious press. Reuters’ article (“Pope decrees bishops must be directly accountable for sex abuse or cover-ups”) is a good example. Remarkably, even though the guidelines are brief, none of the articles provide a link to the document.

These days, web articles almost always link to source documents. If no article on these guidelines link to it, that’s almost certainly because the Vatican – that self-proclaimed bastion of transparency – told them not to.

Reuters opens their article: “Pope Francis issued a landmark decree on Thursday making bishops directly accountable for sexual abuse or covering it up, requiring clerics to report any cases to Church superiors and allowing anyone to complain directly to the Vatican if needed.” This sounds like earth-shaking news. But since the 1980s, bishops have been required to report all cases of abuse to the Vatican, along with the disposition of the case - thus informing the Vatican of any cover-ups.

Bishops have been accountable for abuse and its cover-up for over 35 years. The problem is, the Vatican has never punished bishops for covering up abuse. As far as I can tell, nothing in the guidelines changes this. Furthermore, the guidelines require bishops to report their own cover-up. This is not a useful innovation. But even if bishops confess to cover-ups, there is no reason to believe that either their superiors or the Vatican will do anything more about it than they have ever done – essentially nothing.

P.S. While the Reuters article and other early articles failed to mention any definition of abuse in the Vatican’s new guidelines, a more recent article did. Thus the Vatican made an attempt to prevent definitional problems. However, it only mitigated the problem, as the Vatican’s definition is vaguer than those in civil laws, and dioceses still have excessive leeway in defining these crimes. After decades of study, the Vatican experts added negative value to the work of civil authorities.

My other criticisms still apply intact. (By the way, the article including the Vatican’s definition also failed to include a link to the Vatican guidelines.)

Reuters touts another apparent breakthrough: “The decree also allows victims or their representatives to report alleged abuses by bishops directly to the Vatican or a Vatican ambassador, bypassing diocesan procedures that have been discredited by multiple instances of cover-ups.” But victims and their representatives have been complaining to the Vatican for decades. Nothing in the guidelines offers any reason to expect those complaints to be treated differently than they have been in the past.

Secular Authorities

The guidelines say nothing about reporting abuse to secular authorities. Bishops are only responsible for reporting to the Vatican. Reuters reports the Vatican views on this subject:

“Victim’s groups and their advocates have called for the Vatican to make reporting of suspected abuse to police mandatory but the Holy See says Church law cannot override local civil law because the latter varies around the world.

 

‘There is such a variety of domestic laws that we cannot tell states what their citizens should be doing,’ said Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s senior abuse investigator.”

Contrary to the demands of victim groups – who Reuters ignores – the Vatican refuses to require bishops to report sex crimes to the legal authorities: “Church law cannot override local civil law because the latter varies around the world.” After all, we can’t have bishops reporting crimes if no local law has been violated. Maybe there is some place on earth that allows child abuse. The Holy See wouldn’t want to waste the time of such a place with charges of priestly sex abuse. The Vatican expert declares, “There is such a variety of domestic laws that we cannot tell states what their citizens should be doing.” Of course they can and should tell bishops to report violations of local laws to local authorities. Their excuse is worse than pathetic, it is outrageous, since the Catholic Church very often tries to tell the state what their citizens should be doing, whether it involves abortion, birth control, capital punishment, etc. -  not to mention statutes of limitations on child abuse, special tax laws for religions, and religious exemptions for various rules and regulations. It is noteworthy that the Vatican can say this with a straight face.

Back to Basics

The new guidelines don’t even attempt to define what constitutes child abuse. That is left to each of the more than 3000 dioceses to define. If a diocese believes that a pat on the rump is simply a sign of affection, there is no need to report priests groping children – even if it is a crime. As far as I can tell, dioceses are permitted to define abuse as narrowly and capriciously as they desire. A bishop could say that only anal rape constitutes abuse – with exemptions if it takes place on Wednesday and if the priest uses a condom. The Vatican is inviting thousands of different definitions of abuse. But if history is any guide, it won’t matter. As far as we can tell, the Vatican never did anything with the tens of thousands of abuse reports it has received over the years. Nothing in the guidelines suggests this will change.

The guidelines say nothing about penalties for either crimes of abuse or crimes of covering up the abuse. Presumably that is also up to the dioceses.

Comments from Victims’ Group

Crux (here) reported the comments of Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of Bishopaccountability.org:

 “‘The edict has three serious weaknesses,’ Barrett Doyle said. ‘It stipulates no penalties for those who ignore it, it mandates no transparency to the public, and it doesn’t require the permanent removal of abusers from ministry…. This is not the bold action that’s desperately needed. A law without penalties is not a law at all - it’s a suggestion.’”

 

Conclusions

As far as sex abuse is concerned, the so-called universal Catholic Church seems to be a loose collection of more than three thousand dioceses, each of which can define abuse as it pleases, and take whatever actions it pleases to prosecute those who violate their rules. Unless required by civil law, violations need not be reported to the legal authorities. The guidelines also say nothing about notifying the laity of sex offenders.

The Vatican’s role in abuse is essentially that of a central storage facility. It receives notifications from the dioceses, but all the substantive work is done locally. This relieves the Vatican of all accountability. If anything goes wrong, it is the fault of the local diocese or archdiocese. Pope Francis’ special commission on child abuse has studied this for over six years. Pope Francis also consults other church experts on abuse. Yet this is the best the the pope and his staff could do.

No doubt some dioceses will do a creditable job – just as New York has done under current guidelines. But others will fail to protect their flock, and the Vatican shirks all responsibility. While both mainstream and the religious press hail this is as a great leap forward, it is a travesty. Yet the press lavished praise on the guidelines - though most was less fulsome than Reuters’. The Vatican’s idiopathic journalistic principles seem to have infected the secular press as well. The free press, which once denounced the Scopes Monkey Trial, and, more recently, questioned the righteousness of Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson, seems unable to ward off the influence of the Vatican.

 

P.S. While the Reuters article and other early articles failed to mention any definition of abuse in the Vatican’s new guidelines, a more recent article did. Thus the Vatican made an attempt to prevent definitional problems. But it only mitigated the problem,. The Vatican’s definition is vaguer than those in civil laws, and dioceses still have excessive leeway to define what consitutes abuse. After decades of study, the Vatican experts added negative value to the work of civil authorities.

My other criticisms still apply intact. (By the way, the article including the Vatican’s definition also failed to include a link to the Vatican guidelines.)

 

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