Holy See Addresses Scandals Caused by Priests

Response of Prefect of Congregation for the Clergy

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 21, 2002 (Zenit.org).- When presenting John Paul II´s Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday, journalists asked Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos numerous questions on the scandals of priests, which in recent weeks have received ample coverage in the media.

This was the response of the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy.

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As regards the problems of sexual abuses and cases of pederasty, I will permit myself to give only one answer.

In the ambience of pan-sexuality and sexual libertinage created in the world, some priests, who are also men of this culture, have committed the very serious crime of sexual abuse.

I would like to make two observations:

1. There are still no detailed comparative statistics on other professions, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, teachers, athletes, journalists, politicians, and other ordinary categories, including parents and relatives. We learn from a study, among others, published in the book by professor Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University, that around 3% of the American clergy has tendencies toward the abuse of minors, and 0.3% of the same clergy are pedophiles.

2. From the moment that Christian moral sexuality and civil sexual ethics suffered a notable relaxation worldwide, paradoxically but also fortunately, a sense of rejection and concomitant sensibility has developed in not a few countries as regards pederasty, with criminal and economic repercussions for indemnification for damages.

What is the attitude of the Catholic Church?

The Church has always defended public morality and the common good and has intervened to defend the sanctity of life of priests, establishing sanctions for these crimes with canonical punishments.

The Church has never neglected the problem of sexual abuses especially when committed by sacred ministers, not only with the faithful in general, but especially with minors, for whom the task to educate in the faith and in the Christian moral plan is a priority….

Already in the Code of Canon Law [CIC] of 1917, Canon 2359, paragraph 2, stated: «If they were to admit an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue with minors under 16 years of age … they must be suspended, be declared infamous, in case they should hold any type of office, benefit, dignity, or ministry they must be deprived of them, and in more serious cases, they must be deposed» (Si delictum admiserint contra sextum decalogi praeceptum cum minoribus infra aetatem sexdecim annorum … suspendantur, infames declarentur, quolibet officio, beneficio, dignitate, munere, si quod habeant, priventur, et in casibus gravioribus deponantur»).

In CIC, modified in 1983, there is specific reference to our problem in Canon 1395, paragraph 2 («The cleric who commits any other offense against the sixth precept of the Decalogue, if the offense was committed with violence or threats, or publicly or with a minor who is under 16 years, must be punished with just punishments, not excluding expulsion from the clerical state, when the case requires it») and in the Code of the Oriental Churches (CCEO) of 1990, in Canon 1435, paragraph 1.

More recently, the Holy Father John Paul II deplored the gravity of this behavior, firmly calling bishops and priests to vigilance in faithfulness to the commitment to moral exemplarity, when writing and speaking to bishops of the United States of America and in the apostolic exhortation «Church in Oceania» («Ecclesia in Oceania») where he states: «In some parts of Oceania, sexual abuses on the part of priests and religious were the cause of great suffering and spiritual damage for the victims. They also caused grave damage to the life of the Church and became an obstacle to the proclamation of the Gospel. The Synod Fathers have condemned all forms of sexual abuse as well as all forms of abuse of power, either within the Church or in society in general. Sexual abuse within the Church is in profound contradiction to the teaching and testimony of Jesus Christ. The Synod Fathers have expressed their unconditional apologies to the victims for the pain and disappointment caused to them. The Church in Oceania is seeking proper procedures to respond to the complaints in this area, and is absolutely determined to provide compassionate and effective care for the victims, their families, the whole community, and the culprits themselves» (No. 49).

Then, on April 30, 2001, the Holy Father published the apostolic letter «Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela,» with the «Normae de gravioribus delictis Congregationi pro Doctrina Fidei reservatis» where competence is reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith over a series of serious offenses against the sanctity of the sacraments and against the educational mission for youths proper to sacred ministers, particularly pederasty.

When assuming this special competence, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent an appropriate letter to bishops worldwide and, moreover, supports them now when assuming its responsibility in face of such grave facts, either to avoid the risk of any neglect or for greater communication and coordination between the local Churches and the center of government of the universal Church, in order to obtain a homogeneous attitude on the part of the local Churches, while respecting the diversity of the situations and persons.

According to the old norms, one could speak of pederasty when a cleric had criminal behavior of this nature with a minor under 16 years of age. Now this limit on age has been raised to 18 years. In addition, the prescription for this type of crime has been prolonged to 10 years, and it has been established that it should enter into force when the victim is 18, regardless of the age when he suffered the abuse.

The normative also includes, what we might call, an element of guarantee. Its purpose is to remove the dangers prevailing in a culture of suspicion. Therefore, it provides for an authentic, regular process, to individuate the facts, and to confirm the proofs of culpability before a court. Of course there is emphasis on the speed of the process. But there is also emphasis on prior investigations that enable cautious measures to be taken to impede the suspected individual from causing further damages.

The measures and processes must guarantee the preservation of the sanctity of the Church, and the common good, as well as the rights of the victims and culprits.

The laws of the Church are serious and severe and are conceived within framework of the apostolic tradition to treat internal matters internally, which does not mean that one subtracts oneself in the external public order from any civil regulation in force in the different countries, always with the exception of the case of the sacramental seal or the secret connected to the exercise of the episcopal ministry and the common pastoral good.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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