The Holy See released a document today outlining the procedures used by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to respond to legitimate reports of sexual abuse. Canon lawyer Fr. Gerald Murray told CNA that the “Guide will help all people understand that the Holy See, working with local bishops, is seriously engaged in removing criminal priests from the priesthood.”
Fr. Ciro Benedetti, sub-director of the Holy See’s Press Office, told journalists that these procedures are “nothing new” as they are simply a summary of elements and procedures which were established in John Paul II’s Motu Proprio “Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela” in 2001.
Commenting on the document, titled, “A Guide to Understanding Basic CDF Procedures concerning Sexual Abuse Allegations,” Canon lawyer Fr. Gerald Murray called it an “excellent summary of the procedures followed by the Holy See and by local bishops in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clerics.” Fr. Murray added, “It provides basic information to make clear the seriousness with which allegations of these horrendous crimes by the clergy are treated and resolved.”
The document states that all cases must first be investigated locally.
“It is the duty of the local bishop to conduct a serious investigation once he has received an allegation bearing a ‘semblance of truth;’ the results of the investigation must be sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The local bishop must also give his opinion on what procedures should be followed,” explained Fr. Murray.
“The duty of local bishops to report allegations of sexual abuse of minors is clearly stated. This is a serious obligation,” he emphasized.
The document also clearly states that, as part of the “ordinary authority” of the local bishop, he has the discretion to impose measures to protect children and safeguard the community. This means that he is allowed to restrict a priest’s activities at all times. This is also true while an investigation by the CDF is underway.
Fr. Murray also clarified that the CDF has three procedural avenues to pursue when allegations are raised against a priest. The first option is a judicial penal trial before the local Church. The second possibility is an administrative penal trial before the local Church. The final way that a decision could be reached about a priest accused of sexual abuse is by direct judgment of the Pope “resulting in a decree dismissing the offending cleric from the clerical state.”
The decision to send a case directly to Pope Benedict could be made “in cases of those already found guilty in a civil criminal trial or where the evidence is overwhelming,” Fr. Murray said. In such cases, the CDF may also request that the priest be dismissed from the clerical state.
If the accused priest admits to the abuse and accepts a life devoted to prayer and penance, his public ministry is prohibited or restricted by authorization of the CDF.
Alternatively, “Priests who request laicization ‘cognizant of their crimes’… are dispensed from the obligations of the priesthood by the Pope. They will not be kept on as priests,” said the canon lawyer.
Ultimately, Fr. Murray said, “the Guide will help all people understand that the Holy See, working with local bishops, is seriously engaged in removing criminal priests from the priesthood, and that civil authorities must be notified as soon as an allegation having even a semblance of truth is received by the local bishop.”
The Holy See’s Press Office has made the information available to the public through its official website, www.vatican.va, under the “Abuse of Minors: The Church’s Response” section.