Vatican vs. US bishops over ‘credible’ abuse reform
The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith this month updated its manual on handling allegations of clerical sexual abuse of minors. While it harmonizes the permanent guidelines with revised canon law, it also highlights the distance that remains between the Vatican’s preferred legal practice and the methods used by American dioceses.
The DDF’s update to its 2020 vade-mecum, or manual, on Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela — the special law on sexual abuse cases — is dated June 5although the text was not widely canonical until this week.
The revisions are largely a tidying up exercise, reconciling the 2020 policies with the new Book VI of the Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope Francis around this time last year.
But, while the revised vade mecum does not offer much new guidance on how to deal with accusations of clerical sexual abuse of minors, there remains a considerable gap between the Vatican’s view of best practice and how US dioceses are processing the allegations.
This is especially true in the early stages of dealing with an accusation, during which dioceses often issue final statements before all the facts of the case are known and before the accused clergy are allowed to mount any sort of canonical defence.
The results can lead to a denial of due process for accused clergy and premature, sometimes irreparable damage to their public reputation, making it more difficult for them to return to the ministry if later exonerated.
Victim-survivors may also find that the same processes can inflate expectations and fuel frustration and confusion in the results of a canonical process.
But why is there a discrepancy between canonical DDF guidelines and American diocesan practice, and why does it persist, even in the face of repeated Roman guidelines?
In canon law and the DDF vade mecum, the procedure for a bishop to follow in dealing with an accusation of child sexual abuse is clearly defined:
Initially, the bishop is only supposed to determine whether the allegation is “manifestly false or frivolous” – that it does not allege that a person commits a crime in a place at a time that would be clearly impossible.
If this is not obviously impossible, the bishop must open a canonical preliminary investigation to determine if the allegation has a minimum “semblance of truth”.
As the DDF states in its vade mecum, “it should always be borne in mind that the preliminary inquiry is not a trial, nor is it intended to obtain moral certainty as to the reality of the alleged facts”.
Because the inquest is not the full legal process and is not intended to determine innocence or guilt, it is not subject to the usual requirements of due process — the accused priest has no right to a lawyer, nor to see all the evidence collected. He may not even know the details of what he is accused of; it is not at all necessary to be told that he is under investigation.
While bishops may, when they deem it prudent, remove an accused priest before or during this preliminary phase, both canon law and the DDF insist on not giving the impression that a verdict has been given. before the actual legal proceedings have begun:
In its vade-mecum, the DDF warns in particular against any public declaration “which could prejudice successive investigations or give the impression that the facts or the guilt of the clergyman in question have already been established with certainty”.
“Statements should be brief and concise, avoiding loud announcements, completely refraining from premature judgments on the guilt or innocence of the accused person,” he says.
But public statements that appear to do just that have become standard practice in the United States.
In 2006, following the Spotlight scandals, the United States adopted, with Vatican approval, the Dallas Charter and the Essential Standards for the Protection of Minors.
In accordance with the standards, bishops were required to set up diocesan review boards – independent, lay-led advisory bodies that included experts from fields such as law enforcement, the psychiatric and therapeutic professions, and advocates. victims-survivors – to act as a “confidential advisory body to the Bishop” on policy as well as the assessment of individual allegations of child abuse.
While this advice has been crucial to the Church’s efforts in the United States to rebuild trust following the scandals of recent decades, it is often unclear how it fits into the canonical process.
In practice, many U.S. bishops delegate both the initial assessment of whether an accusation is manifestly false and the determination of a “semblance of truth” that is meant to trigger a formal canon trial to their review boards for make recommendations to him.
There is nothing canonically problematic about this, per se – bishops are expected to consult specialists in making these decisions.
But, in communicating their findings, these councils often issue public statements that seem to run counter to the DDF’s canonical process and appear to reach definitive conclusions about the allegations before a true canonical process has even begun.
In particular, review boards in the United States have standardized the use of terms such as “credible” and “substantiated” to describe claims, which can give the impression that they have been proven even before any formal canonical legal process has begun.
While some dioceses are redefining the terms to fit the canonical process, it is not clear that this addresses DDF concerns about giving the impression of a “premature judgment”.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, for example, says on its website that “a credible allegation is one that is not manifestly false or frivolous”, and “substantiated” is “not a presumption of guilt”, only an acknowledgment that “there is sufficient evidence to establish reasonable grounds” that the allegation might be true.
The Archdiocese of New York explains that “a decision by the review board that an allegation is credible and well-founded does not, however, amount to a finding by a judge or jury that a cleric is responsible or guilty for the sexual abuse of a minor”.
While these definitions may wink at the DDF’s explanation of the limitations of an initial assessment and preliminary investigation findings, they do not match what most people would understand to mean the words “credible” and “substantiated” when used publicly to describe an accusation against a priest.
In addition to creating a premature impression of guilt that can harm the whole canonical process, the assumptions created by the terms can make it difficult for a priest to return to ministry in the event he is exonerated, with local faithful perplexed. as to how a priest with a “founded” accusation could be declared innocent – exactly the kind of prejudicial impression the DDF warned against.
The same situation can also create problems for the victims. Telling someone that they have been found to be credible and that their accusations are founded raises expectations. As the canonical process opens and an accused priest is allowed to mount a legal defense, a victim may sometimes feel that Church authorities are suddenly questioning the “credibility” of their account.
And things can get even more complicated if it becomes clear that a priest acted improperly, but is not actually guilty of the canonical crime of sexual abuse.
In its vade mecum, the DDF notes that “in the event of reprehensible and reckless conduct, even in the absence of an offense involving minors”, local bishops still have the power to make “other administrative measures at the regard to the accused person”, including restrictions on ministry and other forms of canonical discipline.
But these remedies often fall short of what a “credible” victim of sexual abuse would expect – sometimes leaving them confused and frustrated with the process, and wondering how the Church could not secularize a priest after having already pronounced the charges against him “justified.”
Simply changing the way U.S. review boards speak publicly about their initial assessment of the allegations would seem like an easy way to help address the real issues of justice and due process for accused clergy, consistent with repeated legal advice from Rome. . It could also help manage the expectations of victims in the early stages of the process, without treating them with less respect or giving them less support.
But such a change seems unlikely, despite the problems and despite the disconnect between DDF policy and American diocesan practice. Why?
Part of the problem may only be appearances.
After the adoption of the Core Standards in 2006, review boards developed a language and role for themselves broadly consistent with what the bishops wanted: strong external contributions to the system for assessing abuse allegations.
Phrases like “not manifestly untrue” and having “a semblance of truth” can better recognize that an allegation is still not fundamentally proven, and explain the absence of fundamental procedural safeguards and the right of defense during the investigation. preliminary. But they also fail to convey the kind of decision and determination that US review boards and bishops seem to want to project — even when it may be too early to do so.
Although real concerns – legal and pastoral – about “credible and substantiated” language have emerged, it has proven difficult to reform the Dallas Charter-era reforms, at least in part because any change, even in language, could be interpreted as a return to the reforming commitments of the bishops.
The result is a system that the American bishops and Rome seem to understand to be unequal and likely to create false expectations. But neither seems inclined to act to fix it. Until then, the DDF guidelines will continue to point the finger at the unfinished work of reform.