Friday, April 9, 2010

Vatican Will Outline Abuse Policy With Online Guide

A 360 Degrees Analysis

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the office once known more chillingly as the Inquisition - has long epitomized the secrecy and mystery of the Vatican, with responsibility for banning books and meting out punishments as severe as excommunication and burning at the stake.

Now, as the office's handling of child-molesting priests comes increasingly under fire, the Vatican is starting to open up. On Monday, it will post on its Web site a concise guide for the layman on how the Congregation handles sex abuse allegations.

Also Friday, the Vatican said that Pope Benedict XVI would meet with more abuse victims and that transparency in dealing with abuse allegations is an "urgent requirement" for the church -- a sharp turnabout in Rome's previously defensive response to the scandal.

The laymen's guide doesn't contain any information that isn't available to the public through a trip to a specialized religious library or a Vatican bookstore.

But it puts various sources of complicated canonical procedures together in a concise, easy-to-read, one-page guide, without cumbersome canon law citations and Latin phrases.

The church's internal justice system for dealing with abuse allegations has come under attack because of claims by victims that their accusations were long ignored by bishops more concerned about protecting the church and by the Congregation, which was headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from 1981 until he was elected pope in 2005.

Jose Barba Martin of Mexico tried for years to have his accusations against the founder of the Legionaries of Christ heard by the Congregation. In the end, it took eight years for Rome to discipline the Rev. Marcial Maciel.

"They went through the motions of the law, but they didn't treat us with respect for the law," Barba said from Mexico City.

In the end Barba's abuser was sentenced in 2006 to live a life of reserved prayer; Maciel died in 2008 before the Legionaries admitted that he had fathered at least one child and molested young seminarians.

According to Vatican norms, issued in 2001 and summarized in the new guide, a bishop must investigate every allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric. If the accusation has a semblance of truth, the case is referred to the Congregation, which decides how to proceed.

The Congregation's disciplinary department, which weighs each case, is composed of 10 people: Monsignor Charles Scicluna, who is the promoter of justice, or chief prosecutor; the bureau chief; seven priests; and a lay lawyer, though other officials from other Vatican offices are brought in for specific cases.

They can decide to authorize the diocese to pursue either a judicial or an administrative trial, both of which can condemn a priest to a number of penalties, including defrocking, or what the church calls being reduced to the lay state. Victims can also seek damages. Or the Congregation can conduct a trial on its own, although that is rare.

If the evidence is overwhelming, the Congregation can refer the case directly to the pope, who can issue a decree dismissing the priest from the priesthood altogether.

Scicluna has said that since 2001, some 3,000 cases concerning accusations of abuse dating back 50 years have been referred to the Congregation. A full canonical trial has taken place in 20 percent of the cases; 60 percent of the time there has been no trial, primarily because the priest was old and was instead disciplined by other means, such as restricting where he could celebrate Mass and sending him to pray.

In 10 percent of the cases, the pope has dismissed the priest from the priesthood; in the remaining 10 percent of the cases, the priest himself has asked to be laicized.

The norms themselves are full of fascinating details particular to the church: Judges who mete out justice must be priests "of mature age," must hold doctorates in canon law, and must be "outstanding in good morals."

If the Congregation authorizes the diocese to conduct a canonical trial, three to five judges sit in judgment.

The trial is conducted according to the continental system, in which judges weigh the evidence but do the investigating too, as opposed to the American justice system, an adversarial process where facts are evaluated by a jury of peers.

The confidentiality provisions in canonical proceedings are offensive to some in the U.S. But their purpose is to ensure the integrity of the proceedings and not to hide information from civil authorities, said Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican's U.S. attorney.

"The problem is that people from one legal culture misinterpret how another legal culture operates," he said. "These misunderstandings unfortunately infect much of the debate raging over the meaning of canonical provisions."

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who has been the main expert witness for victims in hundreds of lawsuits against priests and diocese in the U.S. and elsewhere, said canonical trials can be an effective way to mete out justice - if they are held.

The problem is that they have rarely been held, said Doyle, who in the course of testifying in lawsuits has reviewed documentation from 190 of the 195 Catholic dioceses in the United States and reviewed more than 1,500 priest personnel files.

"Almost all the cases - where bishops received allegations that a priest sexually abused, raped or molested a child - the bishops' procedure was simply to confront the priest, transfer him to another assignment, and in a few cases they send them to counseling centers," Doyle said.

Doyle said the secrecy surrounding the proceedings is excessive in requiring the victims to take an oath of secrecy once the trial begins.

"The justification for secrecy is usually given to protect the reputations of everyone involved -- which is legitimate - and the need to conduct the trial as unencumbered by outside influences," Doyle said. "But the common law system is evidence you can have some transparency."

The Congregation traces its origins to the Congregation for the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition, the commission created in 1542 that functioned as a tribunal to root out heresy, punish crimes against the faith and name Inquisitors for the church.

One of its more famous victims was Giordano Bruno, burned in Rome in 1600 after being tried for heresy.

The Congregation today is housed in a grand palazzo on St. Peter's Square, where two Swiss Guards stand at attention. The Vatican declined to let the news organizations inside for this article.

The Rev. Davide Cito, a canon lawyer at Rome's Pontifical Holy Cross University, has participated in cases before the Congregation's tribunal and been awed by both the history of the institution and tragedy of the crimes that are decided there.

"The first thing anyone who deals with these cases feels is respect - respect for the victim and respect for the priest," he said.

The Vatican; Pontifical Holy Cross University; AP; Reuters.

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