ROME – In a bid to universalize the Catholic Church’s approach to handling clerical abuse cases, the Vatican Thursday issued a new handbook outlining the procedures to follow when an ordained minister is accused of abusing a minor.

The request for a manual was made during the Feb. 21-24, 2019, global summit on the protection of minors at the Vatican, which drew together the heads of all bishops’ conferences worldwide.

That gathering was, in part, held to break the notion that clerical sexual abuse was primarily an issue in the West, and to get bishops on the same page in terms of best-practices, as some countries are more advanced in safeguarding policies than others.

During the summit, Pope Francis issued a list of 21 reflection points to help guide the discussion, one of which was to draft “practical handbook indicating the steps to be taken by authorities at key moments when a case emerges.”

In a statement published July 16 along with the new vademecum, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), said the document had been requested by numerous bishops and superiors of religious communities as a tool to reference when abuse allegations arise. The CDF is the office which deals with allegations of clerical sexual abuse.

“Recent history attests to greater attention on the part of the Church regarding this scourge,” Ladaria said. “The course of justice cannot alone exhaust the Church’s response, but it is necessary in order to come to the truth of the facts,” he continued. “This is a complex path that leads into a dense forest of norms and procedures before which Ordinaries and Superiors sometimes find themselves lacking the certainty how to proceed,” he said, calling the document “an ‘instruction manual’ that intends to help whoever has to deal with concrete cases from the beginning to the end, that is, from the first notification of a possible crime to the definitive conclusion of the case.”

Addressed to bishops, ordinaries, religious superiors and legal professionals helping them handle cases of clerical sexual abuse, the new handbook outlines what constitutes the crime of sexual abuse of a minor, what steps to take when allegations are made, how a preliminary investigation is to be conducted, the role of the CDF, and what possible penal procedures entail, as well as procedures for when an accused party makes an appeal.

The handbook notes that Vatican texts addressing the issue of clerical abuse use the term “minor” in a general sense, and do not distinguish between pedophilia or other types of abuse, such as ephebophilia, meaning the abuse of post-pubescent adolescents.

It highlights recent changes made to canon law, including Francis’s decision in December 2019 to remove the pontifical secret in cases of clerical sexual abuse and raising the age of what constitutes a minor in child pornography from 14 to 18.

When anonymous allegations arise, the handbook stated that the anonymity of the accuser “should not automatically lead to considering the report as false,” but stressed that “great caution should be exercised in considering this type of notitia (information), and anonymous reports certainly should not be encouraged.”

Likewise, if an accusation is made that seems dubious for some reason, “it is not advisable to dismiss the matter a priori,” the guidelines said, adding that even if the allegation is “vague and unclear, it should be appropriately assessed and, if reasonably possible, given all due attention.”

When abuse is revealed in the context of confession, priests are encouraged to try to convince the penitent “to make that information known by other means, in order to enable the appropriate authorities to take action.”

The handbook also states that an accusation will only be tossed out for lacking “the semblance of truth” if for some reason the case cannot be pursued according to canon law, as in cases when it is discovered that the accused was not a priest when the crime allegedly took place, or if the presumed victim was not a minor, or if it is common knowledge that the accused person could not have been present when the abuse is alleged to have taken place.

It was also noted that at any point after an allegation is made, the accused party has the right to issue a request to be dispensed from all clerical obligations, including celibacy or any vows that had been made.

If the accused party loses their clerical status either through a requested dispensation or as a punishment during the preliminary investigation, the bishop overseeing the case must assess whether to continue the investigation, “for the sake of pastoral charity and the demands of justice with regard to the alleged victims.”

Should a priest lose his clerical status once a penal process has already begun, the handbook stipulates that it can continue, “if for no other reason than to determine responsibility in the possible delict and to impose potential penalties.”

Insisting that its contents do not “replace the training of practitioners of canon law, especially with regard to penal and procedural matters,” the handbook stressed that, “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.”

Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, the head of the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection (CCP) and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM), noted that legislation in each respective state “has to be followed,” but the new handbook means “Church leaders of all countries have now a practical point of reference at hand.”

“It allows them to apply coherently the Church’s norms when dealing with allegations of sexual abuse of minors,” he told Crux.

“It was asked for during the summit of 2019 and includes all changes which have happened in canon law since then. This is a further step on the legal side that helps a change of culture towards more responsibility, accountability and transparency and towards more justice for all parties involved,” he added.

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