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.