Buried in a church news round-up in the Italian newspaper La Stampa lurks a highly significant story: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) is working on a global policy to deal with clerical sex abuse which effectively extends worldwide the norms currently existing in the US and the UK. According to the newspaper (my trans),

Archbishop Luis Ladaria, CDF secretary, is working on a "zero tolerance" policy which will prevent dioceses covering up clerical sex abuse of minors. Among the measures in preparation: suspension of priests accused of abuse, obligatory reporting of any allegation to the police, full collaboration with civil authorities (including access to dociments and diocesan archives), lifting of the statute of limitations, and a fast-track laicisation process. 

These will be Vatican guidelines which national bishops' conferences will have to adopt if they have not done so already. Failure to apply them will result in episcopal resignations. The guidelines are intended to ensure that both civil and canonical law can be implemented freely.

According to Rome Reports, the guidelines are expected in the Autumn but could be issued sooner.

One question I have been asked often by journalists in the last couple of weeks is, "why doesn't the Vatican simply demand that all countries where the Church operates adhere to the sort of guidelines which now exist in the UK?" My answer has been that Rome can only legislate in canon law; the question of how the Church should relate to the civil law of each country has to be left to each local Church, because in some cases it exists in totalitarian states or in places where the police could simply not be trusted. But while that reason came out of my mouth, my mind struggled to think of countries where would be true -- and why this was a more important consideration than the safety of the young. 

This is a global crisis for the Church, and sooner or later it was going to demand a response from Rome. Only now, under Pope Benedict XVI, as the crisis reaches into the heart of the Church in central Europe, has Rome awoken from its many years of denial: this is not an Anglo-Saxon crisis; it is not got up by the media; and the rights of priests, while important, cannot be protected so vigorously that it allows for abusive priests to go unpunished and the young to be made vulnerable to further abuse. 

The really significant step which this news heralds is that the culture of silence around this issue -a symptom, I argued in the Guardian earlier this week, of clericalism - needs to be defeated before the Church can declare the crisis over. And defeating clerical omertà requires the kind of radical transparency and accountability which the UK and US guidelines mandate.

It is also a recognition that Rome cannot, on its own, compensate for the deficiencies of national bishops' conferences in their response to clerical sex abuse. The CDF has a staff of only 10 dealing with abuse allegations; over the past nine years, according to one of its officials, Mgr Charles Scicluna, they have looked at 3,000 cases in which priests have been alleged to have committed abuse crimes in the last 50 years. But this is cleaning up after bishops who failed to act. The crisis will only be resolved when each bishops' conference can be relied on to deal properly with allegations past and present.

There are two countries which are next in line: Italy and Poland. In both countries, a very strong culture of bella figura attaches to the Church; last month, Msgr Scicluna said he was worried about "a certain culture of silence which I feel is still too widespread in the country (Italy)."

The Vatican will be hoping that the guidelines at least limit the impact of the crisis when it breaks there. Meanwhile, the Church elsewhere is under the spotlight, as recent stories out of Brazil and Norway show. 

Until the new guidelines are published, it is hard to analyse their ecclesiological implications. But they portend greater Roman centralisation and increased episcopal accountability to secular authority -- a weakening, in other words, of the autonomy of bishops. The ramifications of this crisis spread far into the future.

Austen Ivereigh

Comments

Dan Hannula | 4/9/2010 - 4:40pm
David: "It's a needed reform, but it won't do a thing to protect the Church from secular attack."
 
What is the concern here?  Isn't doing the right thing, the needed reform, it's own justification for doing it?  Must it also have some "spin" or PR value as well?  It seems that a concern about a public scandal in place of a concern for victims is what exacerbated the problem in the first place.  Is that concern so hard to let go of?  Is it really worth anything? And, what is the "church" anyway? Is it some "branded" entity whose public image is of upmost concern or is it we Catholics-you and me and the victims?   
Eric Stoltz | 4/9/2010 - 8:54pm
Oh, and here's the part that makes it a story about the Church:
 
When the mayor of the town heard that the farmer had saved some of the horses in the third fire, he made him the tow's fire chief.
Eric Stoltz | 4/9/2010 - 7:53pm
Once there was a farmer whose barn burned down. All the livestock were killed in the blaze. So he rebuilt the barn and bought new horses.
The next week, his barn burned down again and all the new horses were killed. He was very upset. But still he rebuilt the barn and bought more horses.
The next week, the same thing happened. He was furious. He accused his neighbor of burning down the barn. He then accused the townspeople of turning his neighbor against him, causing him to burn down the barn.
He rebuilt the barn and bought yet more horses. This was difficult because the horse breeders around were hesitant to sell him any horses, convinced the new horses would also die.
Sure enough, a week later, his barn caught fire. This time he was able to save a few of the horses. The townspeople were furious that he continued to endanger their property, and they had to hear the terror of the horses as they burned to death. The farmer was upset at his neighbors; surely they should give him credit for saving some of the horses; he felt he should be honored as a hero.
Yet again he rebuilt his barn. A couple of nights later some of his neighbors snuck into the barn to see if they could find the cause of the fires. They were amazed to see a roaring campfire burning unattended within a stone circle in the middle of the barn.

The neighbors put out the fire and went to the farmer's house. They demanded to know why he let a fire burn unattended in the barn. The farmer became defensive. He explained the fire was for the good of the horses, to keep them warm in the cold night. He was incensed that his neighbors would criticize him; after all, none of them owned horses, so how would they know what was best for horses?
John Raymer | 4/9/2010 - 4:27pm
Yes, this is a needed reform. I especially like the part about giving the police the leading role in any investigation. The Church does not seem to have understood that sexual abuse of minors is a serious crime worthy of significant prison time, at least in the US. Maybe a lawyer can explain why bishops moving abuser priests around is not conspiricy or obstruction of justice, which would also be worthy of prison time.

I think it is recklessly naive to think that clerical pederasty and abuse of minors is a thing of the past. These are latent crimes that typically take 10 and 20 years to become manifest in the lives of the victims. The crimes of the 1990's are just now coming to light today. It will be 2020 before the crimes of today start appearing.

Abuse of minors occurs in all professions that deal with young people, including teachers, social workers, coaches, Protestant clergy, and youth leaders. The abuse can be either homosexual or heterosexual. It is not new or the result of modern laxity, or of Vatican II or any of the other crap that has been written lately - it is as old as sin itself - and will be as enduring as sin itself. I do not know if Catholic priests are significantly more or less likely to commit abuse than then the other professions listed above. A statistician can figure that one out.

What makes most of so angry is the systematic coverup by those whom we trust. Faith is the whole point of our Church. We believe in the Holy Catholic Church as the Mediatrix of Salvation. We place our faith in the Magisterium and in the bishops and popes to develop and keep it. Our faith is built on a communal, not individual, relationship with God. The community of faith starts with Jesus Christ and passes through our leaders: the Pope, our bishops and priests, and finally comes to us the laity. But if the center is not worthy of trust, where does that leave all of us?

Our bishops and popes have grossly and criminally failed in their responsibility. And they still seem not to get it. Will they ever? Do they trust Jesus enough to follow him to the cross? Or are they too tied to their vestiges of privledge and power? Our Church can only come to its Resurrection if it is willing to go to the cross. The laity are there right now. We hope our leaders can make the right decisions and follow the rest of us.