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The Vatican vs the US bishops on 'credible' abuse reform

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith updated this month its handbook on handling allegations of clerical sexual abuse of minors. While it harmonizes the standing guidance with revised canon law, it also highlights the distance still remaining between the Vatican’s preferred legal praxis and the methods used by U.S. dioceses.

The DDF’s update to its 2020 vademecum, or handbook, on Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela — the special law on sexual abuse cases — is dated June 5, though the text only came into wide canonical circulation this week.

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The revisions largely amount to a tidying-up exercise, reconciling 2020 policies with the new Book VI of the Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope Francis this time last year. 

But, while the revised vademecum doesn’t offer much in the way of new guidance on how to handle accusations of clerical sexual abuse of minors, there remains a sizable gap between the Vatican’s vision of best practice and how U.S. dioceses process allegations. 

This is especially true of the first stages of handling an accusation, in which dioceses often issue definitive-sounding statements before the full facts of the case are known, and before accused clergy are allowed to mount any kind of canonical defense. 

The results can lead to a denial of due process for accused clergy, and premature, sometimes irreparable, damage to their public reputations, complicating their return to ministry in the event they are subsequently cleared. 

Victim-survivors, too, can find that the same processes can inflate expectations and fuel frustration and confusion in the results of a canonical process.

But why is there a gap between the DDF’s canonical guidance and U.S. diocesan practice, and why does it persist, even in the face of repeated Roman directives?


In canon law and the DDF’s vademecum, the process for how a bishop is supposed to handle an accusation of sexual abuse of a minor is clearly laid out: 

Initially, the bishop is only supposed to determine if the allegation is “manifestly false or frivolous” — that it doesn’t allege a person committing a crime in a place at a time that would be clearly impossible. 

If it’s not obviously impossible, the bishop is to open a canonical preliminary investigation to determine if the allegation has a minimum “semblance of truth.”

As the DDF states in its vademecum, “It must always be kept in mind that the preliminary investigation is not a trial, nor does it seek to attain moral certitude as to whether the alleged events occurred.”

Because the investigation isn’t the full legal process and doesn’t set out to determine innocence or guilt, it isn’t subject to the usual requirements of due process — the accused priest doesn’t have the right to legal counsel, or to see all the evidence collected. He may not even know the details of what he’s been accused of; it’s not actually required that he be told he’s under investigation at all.

While bishops can, when they consider it prudent, remove an accused priest before or during this preliminary phase, canon law and the DDF both stress the need for not giving the impression that a verdict has been reached before the actual legal process has begun: 

In its vademecum, the DDF specifically warns against any public statements “that could prejudice successive investigations or give the impression that the facts or the guilt of the cleric in question have already been determined with certainty.” 

“Statements should be brief and concise, avoiding clamorous announcements, refraining completely from any premature judgment about the guilt or innocence of the person accused,” it says.

But public statements which seem to do exactly this have become the standard U.S. practice.

In 2002, in the wake of the Spotlight scandals, the U.S. adopted, with Vatican approval, the Dallas Charter and Essential Norms for the protection of minors. 

In line with the norms, bishops were required to set up diocesan review boards — lay-led independent consultative bodies, which included experts from fields like law enforcement, the psychiatric and therapeutic professions, and victims-survivors’ advocates — to act as a “confidential consultative body to the bishop” on policy as well as on the assessment of individual allegations of abuse of minors.

While those boards have been crucial to the Church’s efforts in the U.S. to rebuild trust following the scandals of recent decades, it is often unclear how they fit into the canonical process.

In practice, many U.S. bishops delegate both the initial assessment of whether an accusation is obviously false and the determination of a “semblance of truth” which is supposed to trigger a formal canonical trial to their review boards to make recommendations to him. 

There’s nothing canonically problematic about this, per se — bishops are supposed to consult specialists in making these decisions.

But, in communicating their findings, these boards often issue public statements which seem to cut against the DDF’s canonical process and appear to arrive at settled conclusions about allegations before a real canonical process has even begun.

Most notably, review boards in the U.S. have standardized the use of terms like “credible” and “substantiated” to describe allegations, which can give the impression that they have been proven even before any formal canonical legal process has begun.

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While some dioceses redefine the terms to fit with the canonical process, it’s not obvious that this answers the DDF’s concerns about giving the impression of a “premature judgment.”

The Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, for example, says on its website that “a credible claim is one that is not manifestly false or frivolous,” and “substantiated” is “not a presumption of guilt,” only an acknowledgment that “sufficient evidence exists to establish reasonable grounds” that the allegation could be true.

The Archdiocese of New York explains that “a determination by the Review Board that an allegation is credible and substantiated, however, is not equivalent to a finding by a judge or jury that a cleric is liable or guilty for sexual abuse of a minor.”

While these definitions might nod to the DDF’s explanation of the limits on an initial assessment and preliminary investigation’s conclusions, they aren’t what most people would understand the words “credible” and “substantiated” to mean when used publicly to describe an accusation against a priest.

Apart from creating a premature impression of guilt which can prejudice the full canonical process, the assumptions created by the terms can make it difficult to return a priest to ministry in the event that he is exonerated, with members of the local faithful left confused about how a priest with a “substantiated” accusation could be pronounced innocent — exactly the kind of prejudicial impression the DDF has warned against.

The same situation can create problems for victims, too. Telling a person that they have been found credible and their accusations substantiated raises expectations. As the canonical process opens, and an accused priest is allowed to mount a legal defense, a victim can sometimes feel like the Church authorities are suddenly second guessing the “credibility” of their account. 

And things can get even more complicated if it becomes apparent that a priest has acted inappropriately, but is not actually guilty of the canonical crime of sexual abuse. 

In its vademecum, the DDF notes that “in cases of improper and imprudent conduct, even in the absence of a delict involving minors,” local bishops still have the authority to make “other administrative provisions with regard to the person accused,” including restrictions on ministry and other forms of canonical discipline.

But these remedies often fall short of what a “credible” victim of sexual abuse is expecting — leaving them at times confused and frustrated with the process, and wondering how the Church can have failed to laicize a priest after already pronouncing the charges against him “substantiated.”

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Just changing the way American review boards talk publicly about their initial assessment of allegations would seem like an easy way to help fix real questions of justice and due process for accused clergy, in line with Rome’s repeated legal advice. It could also help manage expectations for victims during the earliest stages of the process, without treating them with any less respect or giving them any less support.

But such a change seems unlikely, despite the problems and despite the gap between the DDF’s policies and American diocesan practice. Why?

Part of the problem may just be appearances. 

After the Essential Norms were adopted in 2002, review boards developed a language and role for themselves broadly in line with what the bishops wanted: strong external inputs into the system for evaluating abuse allegations. 

Phrases like “not manifestly false” and having “a semblance of truth” may better recognize that an allegation is still fundamentally unproven, and account for the absence of basic procedural safeguards and the right of defense during the preliminary investigation. But they also fail to convey the kind of decisiveness and resolve which both review boards and U.S. bishops seem to want to project — even when it might be too soon in a case to do so. 

Even though real concerns — legal and pastoral — with the language of “credible and substantiated” have emerged, it’s proved hard to reform the reforms of the Dallas Charter era at least partly because any change, even in the language, could be interpreted as a walking back of the bishops’ reforming commitments.

The result is a system which both the U.S. bishops and Rome seem to understand is uneven and prone to creating false expectations. But neither seems inclined to act to fix it. Until they do, the DDF’s guidelines will continue to point to the still-incomplete work of reform.

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