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Facing Sin in the Ranks

January 21, 2002

The Vatican announced new guidelines this month on how it will use ecclesiastical courts to try priests accused of sexually abusing minors. The new policy--written, tellingly, in Latin and with little detail revealed--was quietly published in the Holy See's official gazette. Church officials view the new rules as a way to more effectively deal with allegations of pedophilia against priests. But the internal policy could stymie criminal investigations.

Charges of child molestation or similar abuse are the business of criminal investigators, to be adjudicated in a courtroom. Under California law, members of the clergy have the obligation to report to civil authorities cases where there is reasonable suspicion of a crime, such as child abuse, except when the revelation occurs during confession. The church says internal proceedings would not preclude civil or criminal prosecutions of priests. The proceedings could, however, cause irreparable damage to a case by "contaminating" witnesses and evidence.

An anonymous Vatican source quoted in media reports explained the new policy by citing what he termed the church's pastoral obligation to protect the rights of the accused. Indeed, men of the cloth, like anyone else, must be assumed innocent until proven guilty--as the devastating false accusations leveled against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago in 1993 made clear.

However, any institution's first obligation is to protect the children with whom it has been entrusted. With that in mind, the Vatican should follow its announcement of the new policy by giving public assurance that before any internal steps are made, church authorities will take specific precautions. The church should make certain that every credible suspicion that a priest has molested a minor is reported immediately to civil authorities. It should cooperate with all law enforcement investigations and assign the accused to duties that do not require contact with children until the matter is settled. The church says its policy is to report and cooperate, but it is not clear when authorities are to be notified. Finally, priests found guilty by a secular court of law should automatically be denied their clerical privileges and relieved of duties.

No doubt the church is sincere in pushing for reform. Keeping such efforts secret would be a mistake. Secreta suspicionem creant--secrets breed suspicion.

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