The Vatican’s request this month that bishop’s conferences around the world draft local guidelines within a year for handling clerical sex abuse redirects attention to those most responsible for preventing and addressing such scandals: the bishops.
In truth, local bishops always have had that duty, and the Vatican document accompanying the guidelines request adds nothing new to episcopal authority or tasks. But by requiring local churches to create a formal, standardized response to sexual abuse (and stating plainly: “The responsibility for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors belongs, in the first place, to bishops or major superiors.”) the Vatican helps correct an increasingly popular misperception that is reinforced in the mainstream media and by plaintiff’s lawyers: Somehow the Vatican and even the pope himself bears primary responsibility. An example: Amnesty International, in its 2011 Human Rights Report, alleged that the Vatican “did not sufficiently comply with its international obligations relating to the protection of children” — though it offered no evidence of rights violations.
Ironically, Pope Benedict XVI, and the Vatican under his leadership, has had a hand in the creation of that misperception. Since the crisis first detonated with real magnitude in Boston in 2002, and it became clear how poorly and inconsistently local churches were treating both abusers and their victims, the Vatican has centralized adjudication of all abuse cases in its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (once headed by Pope Benedict).
Now bishops must refer any accusations of clerical abuse of minors or consumption of child pornography that bear a “semblance of truth” to the doctrinal congregation, which also has been given enhanced disciplinary options, even outside a trial process. According to an interview with a doctrinal official last year, a staff of less than a dozen has handled 3,000 cases of abuse from incidents spanning back five decades. Of those only 20 percent went to a Church trial; 60 percent were given some sort of administrative penalty or restriction on their ministry; and the remaining 20 percent were laicized, half of whom voluntarily. He said after the initial flood, new accusations are averaging about 250 a year, from a worldwide priest count of nearly 410,000.
The Vatican’s new request to local bishops’ conferences won’t have any formal impact for the United States, whose bishops have not only already adopted guidelines but also received permission to give them the force of Church law.
It ought, however, to reinforce the sense of local accountability and resolve to care for victims, apply high standards in the selection and training of seminarians, create healthy and holy environments for children, and ensure justice both for abuse victims and accused priests.
And eradicate the attitudes that allowed this crisis to develop. The head of the Philadelphia archdiocesan review board recently wrote a scathing article about the culture of clericalism she was sure was at the root of the poor way the archdiocese handled a recent unveiling of abuse accusations.
“The solution to the sexual-abuse scandal rests on being honest, acting promptly and transparently, being open to constructive criticism, and being committed to protecting minors,” she said. “If the bishops’ resolve to see this tragedy never happens again is not firm and sincere, all the canon laws, review boards, civil laws, and grand-jury reports in the world won’t solve this crisis. And the scandal will continue.”
The scandal is in large part behind us. Much work has been done. But the Church at every level needs to hold itself accountable.