By Devin Watkins
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently published an instruction manual for Bishops and Religious Superiors to consult when seeking the truth in cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors.
Prof. Myriam Wijlens, a canon lawyer and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, spoke to Vatican News about the Vademecum and how it can help the Church deal with the scourge of sexual abuse.
“I think the document is a major step forward in the whole process,” she said.
Changes to Church law
The Church’s legislation has changed over the nearly three decades that Prof. Wijlens has worked as a canon lawyer.
“It at times becomes unclear which norms are actually applicable at what time,” she said, “because we have to remember that in penal matters, the investigation always has to take into consideration the law that was in place at the time the crime was committed. It is never retroactive.”
One change that has been made since the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law is the age at which a person is considered a minor, which was raised from 16 to 18 years of age. Pornography in relation to persons under 18 years of age was also added.
“We had changes clarifying that people who do not have what we call ‘the habitual use of reason’ would fall into this category,” she added.
Other changes include the statue of limitations and the relevant Vatican Dicastery to which reports of abuse should be made.
“If you put all of these variables together,” said Prof. Wijlens, “you can see that there is a risk that people do not understand anymore what falls into what category and what they are supposed to do.”
Guide for anonymous accusations
The Vademecum also delves into a series of practical questions. Prof. Wijlens said many of these serve as responses to issues that are not easy to legislate for, but “that you solve as you go and that you solve by way of jurisprudence.”
She gave the examples of anonymous accusations and cases where the child says they were abused by “Father” without knowing his name.
“I’ve seen people coming with their First Communion pictures saying, ‘This is the priest but I don’t know his name.’”
Prof. Wijlens said the Vademecum offers a guide for dealing with these kinds of cases, rather than just dismissing them outright.
Bishops and Religious Superiors, she added, are obliged to take reports of abuse of minors very seriously.
“I think it brings to light the painful process of learning that the Catholic Church has undergone over the past 30 years.”
Victims at the center of investigation
Prof. Wijlens noted that the 1983 Code of Canon Law understood violations against the Sixth Commandment by a cleric as “a violation of the commitment that the priest had made to a celibate life.”
Now, 30 years later, she said, “we see in the procedures we have today – and I find this very remarkable about the Vademecum – is how the victims are at the center of the procedures and that there is much more attention for the victims. I would say that it is a document about the protection and promotion of the rights of victims.”
Treating all parties with respect
Asked about how the Vademecum contributes concretely to keeping children safe in the Church, Prof. Wijlens said the document “highlights the rights and the concern for victims.”
“The victim and the family are to be treated with respect,” she said. “The one who does the investigation must offer them welcome and attentive hearing, and must offer medical, psychological, and spiritual support.”
She pointed out that this is “a kind of language and a whole way of speaking that we didn’t have at the beginning.”
Church, state, and abuse
Another issue the Vademecum clarifies is the Church’s interaction with the state regarding reports of abuse.
The issue was unclear in some countries, noted Prof. Wijlens, adding that the document is very clear on this point.
“It says that, if at all possible, you should report this to civil authorities, even if it is not explicitly obligatory [per local civil laws],” she said. “But you have to take into consideration how to protect the persons that are involved, especially the minors that are involved.”
Seal of Confession and abuse
Prof. Wijlens said there is debate in some countries regarding the Seal of Confession and abuse reporting requirements. She added that an abuse report could come from a third party or from an abused child.
Paragraph 14 of the Vademecum reads, “It must be pointed out that a report of a delictum gravius received in confession is under placed the strictest bond of the sacramental seal. A confessor who learns of a delictum gravius during the celebration of the sacrament should seek to convince the penitent to make that information known by other means, in order to enable the appropriate authorities to take action.”
Prof. Wijlens said confessors need to be taught the necessary skills to help convince the penitent to report abuse outside confession.
“I think this is a task for the future of the Church to see what kind of education do confessors have to listen attentively, to listen and to hear what penitents are really saying, and also what we, as canon lawyers, call helping the person bring something from the internal forum into the external forum. What kind of further training could we imagine?”
“I think that if you do all this well,” concluded Prof. Wijlens, “this will contribute to justice within the Church community.”