Yesterday, in the Catholic Church’s latest attempt to act like it’s on top of the child sexual abuse problem, the Vatican released guidelines to bishops saying that all minimally credible allegations of abuse should be reported to local law enforcement even if priests are not legally required to do so.
Sounds like a smart move. But don’t give the Church a lot of credit just yet.
The unspoken part of the new guidelines is that the Church often handles these allegations internally, without any real oversight, and that’s part of why the abuse crisis has become so widespread. Many Church leaders in the past dismissed those abuse allegations, shuffled problematic priests between parishes, or flat-out covered for the criminals.
In some states, there are also laws that exempt priests from mandatory reporting rules. If a public school teacher discovers a child is being abused, she’s obligated to report that to a school counselor, but if a priest finds out someone is abusing a child — perhaps because a colleague said so in a confession booth — the Church has said reporting that person would violate their leaders’ “seal of Confession.” In some states, the Catholic Church has successfully opposed laws to change that rule.
So the new guidelines are meant to straddle the line between the Church’s desire for secrecy and the rest of the world’s desire to stop children from being molested.
While the manual doesn’t have the force of a new law, it goes beyond the current Vatican policy about cooperating with law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and police. That policy requires bishops and religious superiors to report allegations of sex crimes with minors only where local laws require it.
The manual says: “Even in cases where there is no explicit legal obligation to do so, the ecclesiastical authorities should make a report to the competent civil authorities if this is considered necessary to protect the person involved or other minors from the danger of further criminal acts.”
And it says church leaders must comply with “legitimate” subpoena requests.
You can see right there what the problem is: The manual allows Vatican officials to say they’re taking the abuse crisis seriously… while still providing an “out” for bishops who don’t take their advice.
It changes nothing. But the headlines look pretty good for the Church.
Even the Church’s strongest critics on matters involving abuse say this is an important step but it doesn’t go far enough:
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-founder of BishopAccountability, an online resource center about abuse, said the manual’s non-binding recommendation that bishops should report abuse was “incrementally better” than the Vatican’s past position.
But she stressed: “We’re past the point of ‘should.’ There is nothing stopping the pope from ordering bishops and religious superiors (to report) all allegations to civil authorities,” with exceptions where it’s not safe.
And she insisted that real progress would come when the Vatican institutes a true “zero tolerance” policy, permanently removing from public ministry any cleric who abuses and any bishop who enables him.
“That will be progress. That will be the reform that is needed,” she said.
We can’t count on Church leaders to do the right thing. There are too many examples of their moral failures. If the Vatican isn’t requiring them to report all allegations of abuse, it’s just not going to happen.