Lessons of Vatican's Approval of U.S. Norms Against Abuse

Interview with Secretary of Congregation for Bishops

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 18, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Vatican approval of the U.S. bishop’s revised norms dealing with clergy sex abuse demonstrates the importance of the communion between the Holy See and a country’s episcopate, a Curia official says.

The signature of Archbishop Francesco Monterisi, secretary of the Congregation for Bishops, appears next to that of the prefect of that dicastery, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, in the «recognitio» decree published last Monday.

In virtue of this document, the «Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons» will come into force March 1.

Archbishop Monterisi analyzed for Vatican Radio the implications of this historic decree.

Q: What does the «recognitio» mean?

Archbishop Monterisi: The «recognitio» is a type of endorsement.

Episcopal conferences have the authority or task to issue norms on different subjects; for example, they establish the age for confirmation, transfer the celebration of certain feasts to Sunday, or write their own statutes. Before these norms are valid, they must receive the «recognitio» of the Vatican.

The Vatican examines these norms and, if it considers them to be in conformity with the general legislation of the Church, grants the «recognitio.»

In the case of the «Norms» of the U.S. bishops’ conference, a special examination was carried out, namely, two days of meetings were held at the end of last October between representatives of the Vatican and representatives of the U.S. episcopate. I participated in these and can testify that it was an experience of a great spirit of communion between the Vatican and the Church in the United States.

Q: Why is it necessary for episcopal conferences to request the «recognitio» of the Vatican?

Archbishop Monterisi: Because every bishop can give valid norms for his own diocese. But when it is a question of groups of dioceses or of all the Church’s dioceses, only the Pope can give valid and obligatory norms for all or make norms issued by these groups to become so.

In regard to the «Norms» of the U.S. episcopal conference, if the Vatican’s «recognitio» had not taken place, they would not be compulsory for all the dioceses of the United States.

Q: In sum, what do these «Norms» prescribe?

Archbishop Monterisi: It is not easy to make a summary, but the essential elements are contained in the letter that Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, wrote to the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Wilton Gregory, in communicating the «recognitio.»

On one hand, the norms confirm the supreme gravity of the acts of pederasty, especially if they are committed the ecclesiastics: A deacon or priest who is sentenced for only one of these crimes following a regular trial, would suffer very harsh punishments, including the loss of the status of ecclesiastic. The common desire of the Vatican and of U.S. bishops to protect children from these acts is forcefully underlined by these norms.

On the other hand, the rights are ensured of defense and of the reputation of priests and deacons who might be accused of these acts, prior to a final verdict. However, before arriving at the sentence, the U.S. bishops have established that precautionary measures must be taken with priests who are accused, after a previous brief investigation, if the incriminations directed to them seem credible.

Among other things, these ecclesiastics will be able to be suspended from the exercise of their ministry, be removed from certain environments, celebrations, etc. In this way, an attempt is made to impede their damaging other people.

Q: What conclusion can be drawn from this decision of the Vatican?

Archbishop Monterisi: The sad case of U.S. priests who have abused minors has profoundly afflicted everyone’s spirit. The extent of the phenomenon has been unduly magnified, forgetting the immense majority of priests who are faithful and dedicate themselves tirelessly to the education of youth.

Our hope, nevertheless, is that these norms, which are certainly severe, but which are essentially already present in the Church’s legislation, will contribute to extirpate the plague and give back to public opinion the true image of the Church, committed to transmitting Christian values to society, especially in the United States.

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