VATICAN CITY, MAY 16, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Bishops have been given a year to turn in guidelines for dealing with the sexual abuse of minors by clergy or religious, according to three Vatican documents made public today.
The request is made in a circular letter, along with an introduction and a summary, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The letter provides a broad set of principles to help bishops’ conferences to establish guidelines, thereby ensuring that the universal Church will respond to sexual abuse consistently from one country to another.
Many episcopal conferences already have guidelines in place; the circular letter states that norms and provisions set by a conference “must be understood as a complement to universal law and not replacing it.”
The principles give priority to victims and prevention, as well as cooperation with civil authorities.
In regard to this last point, the letter states: “Although relations with civil authority will differ in various countries, nevertheless it is important to cooperate with such authority within their responsibilities. Specifically, without prejudice to the sacramental internal forum, the prescriptions of civil law regarding the reporting of such crimes to the designated authority should always be followed. This collaboration, moreover, not only concerns cases of abuse committed by clerics, but also those cases which involve religious or lay persons who function in ecclesiastical structures.”
The Vatican document lauds programs of education and prevention that the Church in some countries has begun.
“Such programs seek to help parents as well as those engaged in pastoral work and schools to recognize the signs of abuse and to take appropriate measures,” the letter notes. “These programs have often been seen as models in the commitment to eliminate cases of sexual abuse of minors in society today.”
In various places, the Vatican statements affirm the Church’s concern for the victims, and the letter states that “ecclesiastical authority should commit itself to offering spiritual and psychological assistance to the victims.”
The letter provides a brief summary of canonical legislation regarding the sexual abuse of minors, including the requirement to turn cases in to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the practice for removing an abuser from the priesthood.
The document also clarifies that an accused cleric should be presumed innocent until proven the contrary.
“Nonetheless,” it says, “the bishop is always able to limit the exercise of the cleric’s ministry until the accusations are clarified. If the case so warrants, whatever measures can be taken to rehabilitate the good name of a cleric wrongly accused should be done.”
The document adds that “the return of a cleric to public ministry is excluded if such ministry is a danger for minors or a cause of scandal for the community.”
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On ZENIT’s Web page:
Cardinal Levada’s introduction: www.zenit.org/article-32586?l=english
Circular letter: www.zenit.org/article-32587?l=english
Summary of letter: www.zenit.org/article-32588?l=english