Vatican Gets Tough on Child Abuse, but Not Tough Enough

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Gregorio Borgia / AP

Pope Benedict XVI greets the crowd attending the Regina Coeli prayer in St. Peter's Square on May 15, 2011

When the Vatican issued a letter on Monday ordering bishops across the world to draw up tough guidelines for dealing with priests who rape or molest children, it addressed only half the scandal that has been rocking the Catholic Church.

To be sure, when it comes to the abusive clerics, the Vatican's new edict takes a firm stand, obliging local bishops to cooperate with local law enforcement in reporting sex crimes and recommending that policies be put in place to exclude accused priests from public ministry if they pose a continued danger to minors or could be a "cause of scandal for the community."

But what Monday's letter fails to do is put in place any sanctions on the bishops who oversee those clerics, should they fail to follow through with the recommendations. Child abuse is by no means unique to the Catholic Church. What sets the scandal apart is the sustained and widespread effort by church authorities to cover up for and protect the accused. And, in this regard, the new guidelines change little. "No threat of penalty will deter a child molester from committing a child sex crime," says David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which criticized the proposal as too lax. "But penalties can deter bishops from ignoring or concealing those crimes."

In drafting its directive, the Vatican has had to walk a fine line between ensuring its bishops cooperate with officials in the just prosecution of sex offenders under their authority while also ensuring their autonomy from civil authorities, especially in repressive regimes in East Asia or the Middle East, where the church can often have an antagonistic relationship with the state. Indeed, in the handling of individual cases, the letter specifically elevates the judgment of bishops over the civilian review boards that have been introduced in some countries, including the U.S. and Ireland.

But in its effort to make sure bishops retain their independence, the Vatican risks perpetuating what victims' groups say is a pattern that sees church officials place the protection of their priests over the well-being of their parishioners with few repercussions. For whatever reason, until recently, bishops have preferred to deal with clerical abuse internally — often transferring abusive priests from parish to parish — instead of handing them over to civil authorities. "The best explanation I can come up with is a profoundly misguided idea of what is in the good of the church," says Phil Lawler, editor of "They were paying more attention to its public image than to the spiritual, emotional and physical welfare of the faithful."

Doubly worrying is that the Vatican's new guidelines seem modeled on those set in 2002 in the U.S., where even with similar policies in place, the church continues to get hit with scandalous revelations. In February, a grand jury accused the Archdiocese of Philadelphia of covering up decades of wrongdoing and keeping up to 37 priests who were suspected of child abuse in active ministry. The Archbishop, Cardinal Justin Rigali, at first denied the accusation, but he later suspended 24 of the accused priests. "There were all the procedures in place for handling credible allegations," says Lawler. "But it was the bishop and his subordinates who were responsible for deciding what was a credible allegation."

And while the priests who allegedly committed the abuse face punishment, the man who failed to bring them to account has yet to suffer any sanction. Indeed, a few months later, Rigali was chosen to represent the church in a celebration in the Czech Republic in June. "As long as church officials who ignore and conceal abuse are tolerated and promoted, then nothing will change," says SNAP's Clohessy. "There simply have to be penalties for dreadful wrongdoing."