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Vatican Sets New Rules for Priests

Religion: Pope, Roman Catholic leaders say pedophilia accusations should be dealt with in secret church courts.

January 09, 2002|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has quietly issued new rules for Roman Catholic churches around the world to deal with priests accused of pedophilia, saying they should stand trial in secret ecclesiastic courts.

Pope John Paul II and the Vatican issued two documents on the problem last year, but they weren't presented at news conferences or made public, as is usually the case with such documents.

Instead, they were published in Latin without any fanfare in the latest yearly volume of "Acta Apostolicae Sedis" (Acts of the Apostolic See), the journal of record of the Holy See.

In recent years, the church has been rocked by scandals involving priests, and the Vatican has been grappling with how to control the damage. In one of the most recent cases, the dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange paid $5.2 million last year to settle allegations of priestly sexual misconduct.

In the pope's document, known as a Motu Proprio, one of the highest forms of papal directives, he authorized the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to issue guidelines on how to deal with the problem.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation, which deals with matters of faith and morals, sent a letter to all bishops and heads of religious orders outlining the Vatican's concerns.

"With this letter, we hope that not only will these serious crimes be avoided but, above all, that the holiness of the clergy and the faithful be protected by the necessary sanctions and by the pastoral care offered by the bishops and others responsible," the letter said.

Ratzinger said that if a local bishop or head of a religious order becomes aware of "even a hint" of a case of pedophilia, "he must open an investigation and inform the [Vatican] Congregation."

A local church tribunal, made up of priests, should hear the case, which could be referred to the Vatican, but the procedures would be covered by church secrecy, the letter said.

The letter made no mention of whether a bishop should inform civil authorities if a church court finds a priest guilty. A.W. Richard Sipe, a La Jolla-based psychotherapist and expert on sexual abuse by priests and former priests, said he had read only parts of the Vatican documents but was troubled by the self-policing policy.

"It doesn't ensure the kind of safeguards and oversights that a problem of this size requires," he said. "You have abusers judging abusers. It's like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse."

Sipe said recent church history shows that too many bishops have kept pedophile priests on the job.

Tod M. Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said the Vatican documents mostly underscore what the Catholic Church in the U.S. has been doing since 1994, including extending the statute of limitations for 10 years past a victim's 18th birthday and defining a child as someone under 18, as opposed to 16.

"These norms, in combination with our own comprehensive policies on sexual abuse, indicate how seriously the church takes its responsibility to ensure the safety of our ministries, especially for children," Tamberg said.

Secret proceedings, he said, "protect the rights of both the accusers and the accused . . . from the trauma of being put on public display."

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