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Special: Church in Crisis
National Catholic Reporter ®

Global Perspectives
From our Rome Bureau


Five Vatican offices will review new charter

Church in Australia also struggles with sex abuse scandal

Cardinal's 'persecution' remarks play to mixed reviews in Europe

Posted Friday, June 14, 2002
Number 3

American zero tolerance policy headed for trouble in Rome, sources say


Though no one is quite ready to say so publicly, there is a growing consensus in Rome that the “zero tolerance” stance on sexual abuse slated for adoption by the U.S. bishops is likely to run into difficulty in the Vatican.

Many Vatican officials, believing that the U.S. bishops are in effect making policy decisions with a gun to their head, are quietly warning that Rome is likely take a more cautious, less stringent approach.

The policies adopted in Dallas will have to come to Rome for approval. The American cardinals pledged to submit any new national standards to the Holy See for review, formally called a recognitio, in the final communiqué from their April 23-24 summit with the pope. Moreover, Vatican approval is necessary for the policies to have binding force, since documents of bishops’ conferences are, from the point of view of canon law, merely advisory.

“Zero tolerance is going to have a hard time here,” one Vatican official told NCR June 14.

The official expressed reservations about imposing forced laicization on the basis of one offense.

“’One strike and you’re out’ assumes that it’s a complete swing,” the official said. “But let’s face it, there are cases in which someone makes an accusation and later retracts it. Are you going to defrock every priest against whom there is even one allegation?”

A common perception in several Vatican offices is that the American bishops are acting under the weight of enormous pressure, especially from the media and from victims’ groups, and are hence being driven into policies that may not reflect their best judgment.

“They’re being forced into a conclusion rather than sorting things out in a dispassionate way,” another official said. “The church is about reconciliation. Its highest priority can’t be driving out the pedophiles.”

Several Vatican sources pointed to the May 18 article of Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda in Civilità Cattolica as one good summary of their concerns. Ghirlanda, a renowned canon lawyer at Rome’s Gregorian University, argued that in responding to charges of sexual abuse bishops must balance the rights of the alleged victim against those of the accused cleric.

Ghirlanda made several specific points that may run contrary to the policies presently under consideration by the American bishops:

• There should be no “public intervention” against a priest by a bishop, which could include releasing information to the media or handing over files to the police, without a “moral certainty” of guilt, or unless the good of the community demands it.

• Priests should not be compelled to undergo psychological testing to determine their propensity to commit sexual abuse.

• If a bishop decides to reassign a priest who has previously been found guilty of a sexual offense, he should not inform the new parish of the priest’s past. The comment assumes that under at least some circumstances, a priest guilty of a sexual offense can continue in ministry. Ghirlanda does not distinguish between sexual abuse of minors and of adults.

• A bishop is neither morally nor legally responsible for the criminal acts of one of his priests, unless he failed in his obligation to form the priest properly.

• Victims should direct accusations to sexual abuse against priests to the bishop, not to ad hoc panels set up to handle such complaints.

• Bishops should not turn over accusations of sexual abuse to the civil authorities simply to minimize liability in a lawsuit that the victim might file.

One canon lawyer who works with several Vatican offices told NCR that he picks up a “cautiousness,” a “reserve,” in the curia about the policies under consideration by the U.S. bishops.

“There is a real sense that all this may not pass muster,” the canon laywer said.

Another Vatican official said one frustration for some curial officials is the apparent desire of the American bishops to create new policies and procedures rather than following the steps outlined in canon law for imposing discipline upon a priest who commits sexual abuse.

“The bishops may say it’s too complicated,” the official said. “But how many of them have actually tried it? My guess would be it’s a small number.”

“We have a canonical procedure for all this, and to some extent it’s been ignored,” the official said.

On the other hand, this official said it’s too early to tell whether these reservations will be strong enough to overcome what is likely to be strong pressure from the United States to approve the new policies.

“People have their problems with it,” the official said. “Whether they’re willing to make an issue out of it remains to be seen.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is