OF late the Catholic Church, and especially Pope Benedict XVI, has come under bitter criticism by the secular press regarding its handling of allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests in several countries (notably in the U.S., Ireland, England and Germany). The accusations can be summarized into three: (1) that the Church has no clear-cut procedure for handling such allegations; (2) that the Church has a policy of being secretive about such cases, tending to protect more the erring clerics than the aggrieved parties; (3) that the Church conceals such allegations from the civil authorities. In the interest of the truth─which the responsible faithful should know how to proclaim in the face of such crude attacks against the Holy Father himself─let us tackle these issues systematically in two installments of this column.
The Church Law against the Sexual Abuse of Minors by Clerics
Contrary to the first charge, the Church has long had laws on the books that address this crime. Even before the codification of the Church laws in 1917 and in 1983, sins against the Sixth Commandment with a minor were also considered as criminal acts. From 1917 onwards, the Church promulgated concise legal norms that stated this and that imposed penalties on clerics guilty of such heinous crimes.
In April 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a law stating that, from then on, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome, headed at the time by Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI), would have sole Church authority over such crimes, which were referred to as graviora delicta or “serious crimes”, giving the title to the aforementioned legal document.
Prior to 2001, the crime would have been generally dealt with on the local level by the diocesan bishop. The CDF would have been involved if the offense had occurred on the occasion of the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance (confession). Otherwise, the case would have gone for a second hearing (appeal from the diocese) to the Congregation for Clergy or the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, depending on how the allegation had been resolved at the local level.
The Canonical Process to resolve Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Clerics.
1st Stage: Preliminary Investigation.
The Code of Canon Law stipulates that the first steps after receipt of an allegation of the commission of an ecclesiastical crime are usually taken by the local bishop. If the priest against whom an allegation is brought is a member of a religious order, his superior might takes the first steps instead. Any allegation that has the semblance of truth (i.e., not manifestly false or frivolous) undergoes what is referred to as a preliminary investigation.
The bishop appoints an investigator, who has the obligation and the authority to collect the facts and circumstances surrounding the allegation, so that the bishop can make a determination about its truthfulness and what further action he would recommend to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The investigator often uses the expert services of others to assist with the investigation. In the United States─where the procedural norms are more developed because of the spate of allegations in the past decade─the bishop also makes use of the services of his Diocesan Review Board, a panel of experts, to help him review the allegation and associated information. The bishop and investigator are careful not to interfere with any civil investigation into the accusation that might take place. The investigator and others who assist in the investigation may be laypersons. In the Philippines, the few cases that have prospered beyond the gossip stage have involved an investigation by the parish pastoral council, admittedly a not very discrete body given the number of people involved.
During the preliminary investigation, the accused enjoys the presumption of innocence and his good name must not be illegitimately harmed. This is a fundamental norm procedural law, also in the law of the state.
The charge of foot-dragging and secrecy leveled on the Church, especially in the United States, is gross calumny. According to the Essential Norms─the law on sexual abuse of minors for the dioceses of the United States─the investigation should be conducted promptly and objectively. The Essential Norms also require the bishop to follow all civil reporting laws when the allegation concerns the sexual abuse of minors. It further requires Church officials to cooperate with civil authorities in their own investigations. Moreover, the bishop exercises his power of governance in other ways to make sure that no harm comes to the minors during this phase of the preliminary investigation.
2nd Stage: Involvement by the Holy See
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has the sole competence in resolving allegations of sexual abuse of minors committed by clerics. But this competence does not “kick in” until a case is referred to it by the local bishop (or religious superior in the case of religious clerics). The bishop makes the decision as to whether a case will be referred to the CDF based on the result of the Preliminary Investigation.
In most instances, unless the allegation proves manifestly false, it must be reported to the Congregation. The Essential Norms require a bishop to report all cases to the CDF once he has sufficient evidence that the sexual abuse of a minor may have occurred.
The CDF then reviews the material and makes a decision on what the next steps might be. The decision is based on the material gathered during the preliminary investigation and on the observations and recommendations of the bishop regarding the allegation and what might be a suitable way to address it.
The next steps could include several options depending on what materials the CDF received. Among them, the CDF could authorize the bishop to hold a trial locally or to address the allegation through a simplified, administrative penal process. It could also hold a trial in Rome at the offices of the CDF. In the clearest and most egregious cases, the CDF could refer the matter to the Pope for immediate dismissal of the cleric (see below for more on this). It might also happen that more information is needed before a decision can be made. This would require the bishop to gather the information and forward it to the CDF. The CDF could also confirm, if the facts and circumstances warranted it, that there is not sufficient evidence of the commission of an ecclesiastical crime.
As to the charge of slowness of the Holy See to address such cases of alleged sexual abuses of minors, it must be kept in mind that the CDF would normally have knowledge of the accusation only when it is reported to the Congregation by the bishop or religious superior.
Finally, as to the specific attacks on Benedict XVI regarding his slowness in acting in such cases, we have to point out that the Pope does not normally get involved, since the CDF handles these cases. The Pope does not supervise the daily activities of the Congregation nor become involved in particular cases as they are being processed.
Meanwhile, what of the Cleric accused?
A common complaint is that the clerics accused of such crimes are allowed to perpetuate their criminal acts while the process is taking place, and such processes could take ages. While this could happen in isolated cases, the usual thing is for a bishop to withdraw a cleric from active ministry pending the outcome of an investigation of the allegation. This is done primarily to assure that minors are not in danger should it prove true that the cleric had committed acts of abuse.
On the other hand, it must be emphasized again that the cleric enjoys the presumption of innocence. This should be made clear by the diocese to the public. If the allegation is unfounded, the bishop must strive to repair any illegitimate damage to the good reputation of the priest or deacon. [To be continued.]