Vatican instructs all bishops to draft abuse guidelines


THE VATICAN has asked all Catholic bishops to draw up child protection guidelines within the next year on how to deal with allegations of sexual abuse against priests.

However, victims’ groups argued yesterday that the guidelines give too much autonomy to bishops, who have often been accused of covering up scandals.

The Vatican’s letter, part of an effort to co-ordinate and standardise the church’s reaction to sexual abuse, sets out principles for bishops in how to respond to abuse allegations.

While bishops’ conferences in countries such as Ireland already have plans in place, some – such as Italy – do not. Bishops in Belgium and the Netherlands – who are both facing sex abuse scandals – are working on their own sets of guidelines.

The letter states that Catholic bishops should have “clear and co-ordinated procedures for protecting children, assisting victims of abuse, dealing with accused priests, training clergy and co-operating with civil authorities”.

The circular letter is a three-part document which deals with (1) addressing the problem; (2) the fundamental role of bishops in these matters; and (3) suggestions regarding the formulation of “concrete operational guidelines”.

While these guidelines contain much that is now widely-accepted practice, they also contain controversial suggestions.

For example, the letter appears to play down the role of lay review boards and leaves some ambiguity on the issue of co-operation with civilian authorities.

Speaking for victims, the One in Four group’s executive director Maeve Lewis said: “While we welcome the introduction of universal norms across the Catholic world, the new guidelines are dangerously flawed. They will support the prevailing culture of secrecy and denial and continue to place children at risk.”

The group’s central concern is that bishops and religious leaders retain “enormous discretionary powers” to decide if an allegation is credible.

“Clergymen do not have the skills or expertise to make sound decisions in this regard: that is a matter for law enforcement and child protection specialists. We know all too well the tragic consequences of relying on the judgment of individual churchmen,” Ms Lewis said.

The US victims’ lobby group Snap was also critical that there was no mandatory reporting requirements.

“There’s no insistence that bishops warn their flock about child-molesting clerics. There is nothing that will make a child safer today or tomorrow or next month or next year,” the group said.

Bishop John McAreavey, Bishop of Dromore and co-chair of the Bishops’ Council for Communications, welcomed the guidelines.

“I wholeheartedly welcome today’s important initiative by the congregation. Today’s publication underscores the Catholic Church’s ongoing commitment to addressing the very serious issue of child abuse,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cori, the Conference of Religious of Ireland, has rejected suggestions that it sought to obstruct an audit into the management of child abuse cases.

A report by the Catholic Church’s National Board for Safeguarding Children in Ireland revealed last week that work on the review had been frustrated until March of this year by its sponsoring bodies – the bishops, Cori and the Irish Missionary Union – who received legal advice they should not co-operate due to possible data protection breaches.

In a letter in today’s Irish Times, Cori’s director general Marianne O’Connor says the delay was not motivated by any desire to delay the audit.