The nonstory of the Vatican’s abuse-reporting policy

The Vatican responded Monday to allegations it long concealed clerical sex abuse by making it clear for the first time that bishops and clerics worldwide should report such crimes to police if they are required to by law.The policy, spelled out in a guide for laymen and posted on the Vatican’s Web site, matches the policy worked out by U.S. bishops after an explosion of sex abuse cases in 2002. Unlike the American norms, however, the Vatican guide contains no call for “zero tolerance” for priests who rape and molest children, and victims immediately criticized it as insufficient.

The Vatican insists it has long been the Catholic Church’s policy for bishops, like all Christians, to obey civil reporting laws. But such an explicit policy had never been spelled out — until Monday.

“Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed,” said the newly posted guideline. That phrase was not included in a draft of the document obtained Friday by The Associated Press. The Vatican offered no explanation for the addition. However, Pope Benedict XVI has come under increasing pressure to show the Vatican is serious about confronting clerical abuse and cracking down on church officials who let it go on virtually unchecked for decades.

I call this a nonstory because  the “new” guidelines are just an explicit articulation of longstanding prescriptions, as the article itself notes. The Vatican has for a long time grudgintly instructed bishops report priestly abuse if and only if the laws of the state their diocese is situated in explicitly obliges them to.
A few weeks back, I linked to a Tablet interview with the Vatican’s chief prosecutor  Charles Scicluna, who outlined of this standard–and also made it clear he found it to be too stringent a guideline, describing legal codes obliging abuse reports as “onerous”:

[Gianni Cardinale]: A recurring accusation made against the ecclesiastical hierarchy is that of not reporting to the civil authorities when crimes of paedophilia come to their attention.

[Charles Scicluna]: In some countries with an Anglo-Saxon legal culture, but also in France, the bishops – if they become aware of crimes committed by their priests outside the sacramental seal of Confession – are obliged to report them to the judicial authorities. We’re dealing with an onerous duty because these bishops are forced to make a gesture comparable to that of a parent who denounces his or her own son. Nonetheless, our instruction in these cases is to respect the law.

GC: And what about countries where bishops do not have this legal obligation?

CS: In these cases we do not force bishops to denounce their own priests, but encourage them to contact the victims and invite them to denounce the priests by whom they became victims. Furthermore, we invite the bishops to give all spiritual – and not only spiritual – assistance to these victims. In a recent case concerning a priest condemned by a civil tribunal in Italy, it was precisely this Congregation that suggested to the accusers, who had turned to us for a canonical trial, that they also go to the civil authorities, in the interest of the victims and in order to avoid other crimes.

So Rome’s proclaimation isn’t a step forward. It’s a lateral step. It’s PR. It’s something to do without really doing anything to make it look like they’re doing something. If the Vatican were serious about cleaning their own house, they’d tell bishops to report allegations even where there is no explicit legal obligation to do so. This would seem to be the minimumly decent thing to do. But top Vatican officials still call it “onerous.”

The Yahoo article also mentions there’s no mechanism for enforcing the guidelines, i.e. no set punishment for bishops who don’t abide their locality’s laws. Until I’m shown otherwise, I can’t believe the Vatican has enforced a serious penalty in such cases. Hell, sometimes they reward conspirators. Look at Boston’s Bernard Francis Law. The deserves incarceration–even  Bill O’Reilly agrees with me. But he was given a cushy job in Rome by Wojtyła (John Paul II), and a vote in the last papal conclave.

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