Paedophilia: Protect the children
It is evident that many bishops around the world have been ill equipped to deal with allegations of child molestation by Church personnel in their dioceses.
Even a reputable prelate such as Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster was not immune to bungling when confronted with a paedophile priest in his former diocese.
When dealing with such allegations, diocesan bishops face a multitude of considerations and pressures. Some may seek to minimise public scandal and keep the peace within the diocese. Occasionally, poor judgment has been influenced by a sense of misplaced loyalty or naivete. As a result, several dioceses have been financially crippled by huge lawsuits after bishops failed to protect young Catholics from these predators.
Concern for the victims of child abuse, it must be said, has not always been seen as being pivotal in reactions to allegations of paedophilia.
The Vatican’s resolution to create a central procedure to deal with such allegations is therefore in principle commendable. The new norms will release a local bishop from taking complex decisions, and alleviate the strain on resources a diocesan process entails.
Accordingly, cases of probable child abuse by priests must be reported to the Congregation for Doctrine, which will then decide on the canonical action to be taken (these are, of course, independent of possible civil court actions).
It is reassuring to note the Vatican’s determination to take action.
Some provisions in the new norms may give cause for disquiet, however. Among these is the imposition of “pontifical secrecy” on such cases, which could be perceived as a bid to shroud instances of abuse, even if this is not the Vatican’s objective.
The composition of all-clergy tribunals may give further rise to alarm, potentially creating a perception of a bias in favour of the accused.
While it is right that victims and alleged abusers be protected from publicity, the Church cannot afford being seen as sweeping allegations of abuse under the carpet. The converse should be true: by dealing with paedophiles decisively and transparently, the Church could win back much by way of lost trust.
In that light, the combination of secrecy and an all-clerical tribunal may well prove incompatible. If the court is to consist of priests only, a certain measure of transparency is indispensable in counteracting the notion of a closed shop and of scandal being covered up.
Furthermore, it is conceivable that the notion of a secretive, all-clergy tribunal at the Vatican may be intimidating young victims of molestation, or indeed be used to frighten them. Abused children must not feel discouraged from reporting molestation. It is to be hoped that the Vatican has considered such details.
Nevertheless, the Vatican’s initiative to address the problem of paedophiles among the clergymen who injure the integrity of our overwhelmingly virtuous priests is to be welcomed. One hopes that it will incorporate the good work already done by many bishops’ conferences, including that of Southern Africa, in implementing protocols dealing with allegations of sexual abuse.
However, the classification of paedophilia as a delicta gravoria, or graver offence, in the same breath as essentially matters of internal discipline such the proscribed celebration of the Eucharist with non-Catholic ministers suggests that the Vatican may not have fully appreciated the appalling nature of child molestation. This problem should have warranted treatment in a separate document, thereby unequivocally signifying the Church’s determination to root it out.
In that, the Vatican has missed an opportunity to sound the clearest of warnings to those tempted to violate children: the Church will not tolerate paedophilia in its ranks.