Office building that houses the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Office building that houses the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 

Vatican issues Vademecum: procedures regarding cases of sexual abuse of minors

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) publishes an “instruction manual”, a step-by-step guide to help ascertain the truth in cases of minors who have suffered abuse on the part of a member of the clergy.

By Isabella Piro

Substantially, the Vademecum provides precise responses to what can be called the most frequently asked questions. It is an instruction manual which, in a bit more than 30 pages and 9 chapters, responds to the main questions to several procedural steps regarding how cases of the sexual abuse of minors committed by members of the clergy should be handled. It is not, however, a normative text. Nor does it introduce new legislation on the subject. Rather, it is a tool designed to help Ordinaries and legal professionals who need to apply canonical norms to actual cases regarding the delicta graviora (more serious delict or crime). The Vademecum says such crimes referred to as delicta graviora “constitute for the whole Church a profound and painful wound that cries out for healing.”

The request for this tool was made during the global Meeting of the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences on the Protection of Minors held in the Vatican in February 2019. This edition of the Vademecum is identified as version “1.0” since periodic updates are foreseen as the normative texts or praxis in the CDF is modified. As the Vademecum itself states: “Only a profound knowledge of the law and its aims can render due service to truth and justice, which are especially to be sought in matters of graviora delicta by reason of the deep wounds they inflict upon ecclesial communion.”

Legal references

What constitutes a crime? How does the preliminary investigation take place? What are the possible penal procedures? These are some of the specific questions answered precisely with continual reference to the current Code of Canon Law, the Motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela issued by Pope John Paul II in 2001 and updated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, as well as to the more recent Motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi, issued by Pope Francis in 2019. In addition, in some cases, the Vademecum specifies the differences between the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches and the Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church. For example, in the case of the procedure for conducting an extrajudicial (or administrative) trial, which abbreviates and accelerates the judicial process while maintaining the guarantee of a fair trial, the Latin Church does not require that a Promoter of Justice be appointed, whereas this is obligatory in the Eastern Churches.

Welcoming, listening to and accompanying the person who was abused

There are four particular areas that the Vademecum identifies. Protection of the person comes first. The ecclesiastical authorities are to ”ensure that the alleged victim and his or her family are treated with dignity and respect”. They are to be offered “welcome, attentive hearing and support, also through specific services, as well as spiritual, medical and psychological help, as required by the specific case.” “The same,” the manual continues, “can be done with regard to the accused.” It also recalls the importance of defending “the good name of the persons involved”. In the case of protecting the common good, the Vademecum underlines that providing information regarding an accusation does not “constitute a violation of one’s good name”.

Rights of the accused

Even if the “commission of the delict is manifestly evident”, the accused must always be guaranteed the right to self-defence. At the same time, as chapter 9 states, from the moment that there is a notification of a possible crime, “the accused has the right to present a petition to be dispensed from all the obligations connected with the clerical state, including celibacy, and, concurrently, from any religious vows.” This request is presented in writing to the Pope through the CDF. However, while the accused can present an appeal in either the penal or administrative processes, the decision of the Supreme Pontiff is final.

Careful verification of information

A second aspect that emerges from the Vademecum is the need to scrupulously and accurately verify all the information received by an Ordinary regarding an alleged case of abuse. Even if there has not been a formal complaint, even if the news was first published via the mass media (social media included), even if the source is anonymous, the Vademecum suggests the attentive evaluation of any type of information received. The seal of confession, naturally, remains valid. In this case, the confessor must try to convince the penitent to provide the information of the alleged abuse in another way.

Secret of office and public notification

A third aspect covers communication. A few times, the Vademecum brings up the obligation to respect “secret of office”. It also stresses that, during the preliminary investigation, the alleged victim and witnesses have no ”obligation of silence about the allegations”. It does ask that “the inappropriate or illicit diffusion of information to the public” be avoided, especially in the preliminary investigative phase so as not to give the impression that the facts are valid. At the same time, it explains that, should documents be sequestered or if the civil authority orders that documents be handed over, the Church cannot guarantee confidentiality over documents acquired by third parties in this way.

One paragraph focuses on public notifications that must be made during the preliminary investigation. In these cases, it recommends caution and the use of “brief and concise” statements, without “clamorous announcements” so as not to anticipate judgment regarding the facts.

Collaboration between Church and state

The importance of collaboration between the Church and state is a fourth aspect covered in the Vademecum. It brings up, for example, that “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.” In addition, it reiterates that “the investigation should be carried out with respect for the civil laws of each state”.

Avoiding the transfer of clerics involved

Finally, other particular indications are given. The first regards precautionary measures. These are not a punishment, but rather are an administrative act that can be imposed at the beginning of the preliminary investigation to protect both the good name of the persons involved and the public good, to avoid scandal, the covering up of evidence, or possible threats to the alleged victim. Once the reason for such precautionary measures no longer exists or the process has concluded, they can be revoked. However, the Vademecum recommends the use of “prudence and discernment” in this area.

A second indication involves the use of the terminology “suspensio a divinis” to indicate the prohibition of the exercise of the priestly ministry imposed as a precautionary measure. The Vademecum suggests that this term be avoided in the preliminary investigation phase since such a penalty “cannot yet be imposed at this stage.” Rather, it recommends the use of the term “prohibition from the exercise of the ministry”. During the preliminary investigation phase, the transfer of the priest involved is always to be avoided.

This is a working translation from the Italian original.

The full text of the Vademecum can be found by clicking here.

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16 July 2020, 15:00