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Vatican Reservations Emerging Over U.S. Direction on Sex Abuse

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Recent statements by two Vatican officials have underscored reservations in Rome over the direction U.S. bishops are taking as they formulate a national policy on clerical sex abuse.

In particular, the officials believe it would be wrong to oblige bishops to report all sex abuse allegations to civil authorities, a policy that has been adopted by an increasing number of U.S. dioceses.

For these canon law specialists, the crux of the issue is that bishops should be functioning as pastors, not policemen. They believe that when bishops start acting as reporting agents for the state, they compromise their own pastoral goals -- one of which is to retrieve an errant priest and rehabilitate him spiritually.

U.S. cardinals left a Vatican summit in late April saying they were committed to "zero tolerance" of priestly sex abuse and would aim to formulate national norms at their June meeting in Dallas. If the Vatican approves the norms, they would be binding on all U.S. dioceses.

In mid-May, Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a Vatican City appeals court judge and a leading consulter on church law to several Vatican agencies, outlined a number of legal concerns in an article published in the influential Jesuit magazine, La Civilta Cattolica (Catholic Civilization).

He said bishops -- unless clearly negligent in investigating and correcting abuse situations -- generally are not morally or legally responsible for the actions of their priests. Although he was speaking from a perspective of church law, his point underlined Vatican perplexity over the U.S. legal system and the fact that dioceses have been sued because of the actions of a single cleric.

Father Ghirlanda also cautioned on three procedural matters: He said it was not good pastoral practice to notify civil authorities of all priestly sex abuse accusations; that psychological testing should not be required of suspected clerical abusers; and that, if reassigning a past abuser to active ministry, a bishop should not tell parishioners of the past abuse.

Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine, said that on all three points "most U.S. bishops are already doing the opposite: they are notifying the police, they are requiring psychological evaluation of accused priests, and they are telling parishes of a priest's history of abuse."

"At their June meeting in Dallas, the U.S. bishops will likely take positions opposite of the three points made by Ghirlanda," Father Reese said. He said it was clear that "the U.S. bishops are going to have to present some strong arguments to convince the Vatican of their position."

Father Reese based his comments on a Catholic News Service story about the Civilta article.

In a speech delivered a week after the U.S.-Vatican summit, the head of the Vatican agency that interprets canon law, Archbishop Julian Herranz, criticized attempts to require church leaders to report all abuse accusations to civil authorities and turn over relevant documents.

Like Father Ghirlanda, Archbishop Herranz also argued that the church's own means of dealing with clerical sex abusers should not be short-circuited by policies adopted out of bishops' fear of civil liability.

In an interview with Catholic News Service May 19, Father Ghirlanda said his article should not be seen as a Vatican "directive" to U.S. bishops as they approach their June meeting. Although the Vatican reviews Civilta Cattolica content prior to publication, Father Ghirlanda said the article represented his own opinion and was written well before the U.S.-Vatican summit.

"I honestly don't know if the Holy See will accept these points," he said.

Father Ghirlanda's opinion carries weight, however. He is dean of the canon law faculty at Rome's Gregorian University and is an official adviser to seven main Vatican agencies and to its highest appeals court.

Father Ghirlanda said the question of notifying civil authorities risks confusing the church's investigative role with that of the state.

"My position is this: If a bishop is questioned (by the state) he should respond. If he is not questioned, he should not report," he said.

Instead, he said, the bishop who receives a report of clerical sex abuse should conduct his own investigation, if necessary removing the accused priest quietly and temporarily from ministry. The bishop's investigation should be undertaken with concern for the victim and the church community, but also for the accused priest, he said.

"Even if a priest is guilty, the bishop remains the pastor of that priest. And I would say, from a Catholic and Christian point of view, even if the priest is guilty, the first thing a bishop should do is try to (spiritually) recover him," he said.

"Certainly, this should be done while protecting the Christian community, taking all the precautionary measures so that he cannot do harm," he said.

On the other hand, Father Ghirlanda said, if a bishop does not proceed with the investigative methods offered by church law, but instead "wants to cover up the affair even from a canonical point of view" and simply moves the priest to another parish where he commits more abuse, then the bishop would be morally, canonically and perhaps even civilly responsible.

He said the important thing was to allow both systems -- civil law and church law -- to run their course. Currently in the United States, the two systems are experiencing "very strong tension," he said.

"Maybe the solution could be found if representatives of the Holy See, the bishops' conference and the government were to sit around a table and discuss how to arrive at mutual respect of the reciprocal areas of competence," he said.

He said that where states have laws requiring bishops to report all clerical sex abuse accusations to civil authorities, the bishop may have to decide what comes first: his pastoral or civil responsibilities. He sketched a scenario under which a bishop might go to jail rather than comply with a law requiring automatic reporting of every allegation.

"In this case, I would say being a bishop comes first, not being a citizen," he said.

In addition, he said, civil authorities that question a bishop are going to want information, for example, which people the bishop has questioned in his own investigation, and what answers he received.

"But this falls under secrecy and is kept in the secret archives of the bishop," he said.

Father Ghirlanda said he thinks some bishops have been so intimidated by the risk of civil proceedings that they have made settlement payments unwisely.

"I sometimes have the impression that the bishops are seized by such fear that they are perhaps disposed to immediately come to a settlement and pay. ... If there's that much psychological fear, then it's better to go to trial," he said.

In that case, a civil trial could determine the guilt or innocence of the priest and determine reparation, he said. The publicity might be painful, but in the end the procedure might be fairer, he said.

In the interview, Father Ghirlanda also took issue with the "one strike and you're out" policy, advocated by some bishops, under which a priest would be barred from ministry after one episode of sexual abuse.

Father Ghirlanda offered the hypothetical example of a priest who committed an act of abuse 30 years ago, who repented and who was never involved in another such episode.

"Yes, it was a sin, it was a mistake and it was a crime. But he reformed himself and there was never any other such act in his life. How can the church go after him? He's been forgiven by God, and the church is not greater than God," he said.