On Thursday, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) released a handbook designed to help dioceses and religious orders follow Church guidelines on handling allegations of clerical sexual abuse of minors.
The 17-page document does not alter current canon law but instead provides those charged with authority over clergy, the Ordinary or Hierarch, a “step-by-step” guide to assisting canonical investigations of such abuse cases.
The introduction states that the aim of the manual, or Vademecum, is to help the Church’s leaders “understand and implement the requirements of justice regarding a delictum gravius that constitutes for the whole Church a profound and painful wound that cries out for healing.”
As noted in the handbook, “every external offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue committed by a cleric with a minor” is ultimately dealt with by the CDF because such crimes are classed as a grave delict (delictum gravius). Sexual abuse of vulnerable adults is dealt with in the same manner, since “a person who habitually has the imperfect use of reason is to be considered equivalent to a minor”.
The manual principally addresses how preliminary investigations of allegations are to be conducted, what information must then be passed on to the CDF, and details of how the CDF can be expected to act on information received as it proceeds towards a penal trial.
An Ordinary or Hierarch must obtain relevant data and ascertain plausibility as part of a preliminary investigation if they receive any information about possible abuse, whether it comes directly from an alleged victim or otherwise.
During such investigations, the handbook states that suspected clergy are to be prohibited from exercising their ministry and that ecclesiastical authorities are to avoid “simply transferring the accused cleric from his office, region or religious house, with the idea that distancing him from the place of the alleged crime or alleged victims constitutes a sufficient solution of the case.”
The manual adds that pre-trial preliminary investigations must be carried out “independently of any corresponding investigation by the civil authorities”. It also states that investigators are “bound to observe the secret of office” to ensure a fair trial, to avoid “giving scandal to the faithful” and to “defend the good name of the persons involved”.
However, the CDF note that the “obligation of silence about the allegations cannot be imposed on the one reporting the matter, on a person who claims to have been harmed, and on witnesses.”
The handbook also says that church officials “must cooperate with the civil authorities” where they are legally obliged, and that, “in cases where there is no explicit legal obligation to do so, the ecclesiastical authorities should make a report to the competent civil authorities if this is considered necessary to protect the person involved or other minors from the danger of further criminal acts.”
The document makes frequent reference to the continued need to consult canon law, legal experts and the CDF when investigating clerical abuse of minors and closes by stating that it “does not claim to replace the training of practitioners of canon law, especially with regard to penal and procedural matters. Only a profound knowledge of the law and its aims can render due service to truth and justice, which are especially to be sought in matters of graviora delicta by reason of the deep wounds they inflict upon ecclesial communion.”
The Vademecum is one of the last documents to be released from those announced at the Vatican’s abuse summit in 2019. In addition to the Code of Canon Law, the handbook advises those investigating allegations to make reference to one of the first of these post-summit documents, Pope Francis’s Vos estis lux mundi, which was intended to ensure bishops and religious superiors were held accountable for their handling of abuse cases.
Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins, who previously resigned from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors over the CDF’s “unacceptable” resistance to reform, told the Catholic Herald that the new Vademecum is “a move forward” but that there remained significant issues around transparency.
Collins says that the manual “misses the opportunity to make reporting to civil authorities mandatory. Saying the [report] ‘should’ be made if it is thought necessary rather than ‘must’ be made.
“It also doubles down on the ‘secret of office’ and the priority of avoiding ‘scandal’. At this point in time the ‘avoidance of scandal’ should play no part in decisions in regard to dealing with abuse and subsequent transparency.”
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