.VATICAN CITY, 16 MAY 2011 (VIS) – The Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith today published a circular letter intended to assist Episcopal
Conferences in developing Guidelines for dealing with cases of sexual abuse
of minors by clerics.
“Among the important responsibilities of the Diocesan Bishop in his task
of assuring the common good of the faithful and, especially, the protection
of children and of the young, is the duty he has to give an appropriate
response to the cases of sexual abuse of minors by clerics in his diocese.
Such a response entails the development of procedures suitable for assisting
the victims of such abuse, and also for educating the ecclesial community
concerning the protection of minors. A response will also make provision for
the implementation of the appropriate canon law, and, at the same time,
allow for the requirements of civil law.
I. General considerations:
a) The victims of sexual abuse
The Church, in the person of the Bishop or his delegate, should be
prepared to listen to the victims and their families, and to be committed to
their spiritual and psychological assistance. In the course of his Apostolic
trips our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, has given an eminent model of this with
his availability to meet with and listen to the victims of sexual abuse. In
these encounters the Holy Father has focused his attention on the victims
with words of compassion and support, as we read in his ‘Pastoral Letter to
the Catholics of Ireland’ (n.6): ‘You have suffered grievously and I am
truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your
trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated’.
b) The protection of minors
In some countries programs of education and prevention have been begun
within the Church in order to ensure ‘safe environments’ for minors. Such
programs seek to help parents as well as those engaged in pastoral work and
schools to recognize the signs of abuse and to take appropriate measures.
These programs have often been seen as models in the commitment to eliminate
cases of sexual abuse of minors in society today.
c) The formation of future priests and religious
In 2002, Pope John Paul II stated, ‘there is no place in the priesthood
and religious life for those who would harm the young’ (n. 3, ‘Address to
the American Cardinals’, 23 April 2002). These words call to mind the
specific responsibility of Bishops and Major Superiors and all those
responsible for the formation of future priests and religious. The
directions given in the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis as well as
the instructions of the competent Dicasteries of the Holy See take on an
even greater importance in assuring a proper discernment of vocations as
well as a healthy human and spiritual formation of candidates. In
particular, candidates should be formed in an appreciation of chastity and
celibacy, and the responsibility of the cleric for spiritual fatherhood.
Formation should also assure that the candidates have an appreciation of the
Church’s discipline in these matters. More specific directions can be
integrated into the formation programs of seminaries and houses of formation
through the respective Ratio institutionis sacerdotalis of each nation,
Institute of Consecrated Life and Society of Apostolic Life.
Particular attention, moreover, is to be given to the necessary exchange
of information in regard to those candidates to priesthood or religious life
who transfer from one seminary to another, between different dioceses, or
between religious Institutes and dioceses.
d) Support of Priests
1. The bishop has the duty to treat all his priests as father and brother.
With special attention, moreover, the bishop should care for the continuing
formation of the clergy, especially in the first years after Ordination,
promoting the importance of prayer and the mutual support of priestly
fraternity. Priests are to be well informed of the damage done to victims of
clerical sexual abuse. They should also be aware of their own
responsibilities in this regard in both canon and civil law. They should as
well be helped to recognize the potential signs of abuse perpetrated by
anyone in relation to minors;
2. In dealing with cases of abuse which have been denounced to them the
bishops are to follow as thoroughly as possible the discipline of canon and
civil law, with respect for the rights of all parties;
3. The accused cleric is presumed innocent until the contrary is proven.
Nonetheless the bishop is always able to limit the exercise of the cleric’s
ministry until the accusations are clarified. If the case so warrants,
whatever measures can be taken to rehabilitate the good name of a cleric
wrongly accused should be done.
e) Cooperation with Civil Authority
Sexual abuse of minors is not just a canonical delict but also a crime
prosecuted by civil law. Although relations with civil authority will differ
in various countries, nevertheless it is important to cooperate with such
authority within their responsibilities. Specifically, without prejudice to
the sacramental internal forum, the prescriptions of civil law regarding the
reporting of such crimes to the designated authority should always be
followed. This collaboration, moreover, not only concerns cases of abuse
committed by clerics, but also those cases which involve religious or lay
persons who function in ecclesiastical structures.
II. A brief summary of the applicable canonical legislation concerning the
delict of sexual abuse of minors perpetrated by a cleric:
On 30 April 2001, Pope John Paul II promulgated the Motu Proprio
Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela [SST], by which sexual abuse of a minor
under 18 years of age committed by a cleric was included in the list of more
grave crimes (delicta graviora) reserved to the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Prescription for this delict was fixed at 10
years beginning at the completion of the 18th year of the victim. The norm
of the Motu Proprio applied both to Latin and Eastern clerics, as well as
for diocesan and religious clergy.
In 2003, Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the CDF, obtained from Pope
John Paul II the concession of some special faculties in order to provide
greater flexibility in conducting penal processes for these more grave
delicts. These measures included the use of the administrative penal
process, and, in more serious cases, a request for dismissal from the
clerical state ex officio. These faculties have now been incorporated in the
revision of the Motu Proprio approved by the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, on
21 May 2010. In the new norms prescription, in the case of abuse of minors,
is set for 20 years calculated from the completion of the 18th year of age
of the victim. In individual cases, the CDF is able to derogate from
prescription when indicated. The canonical delict of acquisition, possession
or distribution of pedopornography is also specified in this revised Motu
The responsibility for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors
belongs, in the first place, to Bishops or Major Superiors. If an accusation
seems true the Bishop or Major Superior, or a delegate, ought to carry out
the preliminary investigation in accord with CIC can. 1717, CCEO can. 1468,
and SST art. 16.
If the accusation is considered credible, it is required that the case be
referred to the CDF. Once the case is studied the CDF will indicate the
further steps to be taken. At the same time, the CDF will offer direction to
assure that appropriate measures are taken which both guarantee a just
process for the accused priest, respecting his fundamental right of defence,
and care for the good of the Church, including the good of victims. In this
regard, it should be noted that normally the imposition of a permanent
penalty, such as dismissal from the clerical state, requires a penal
judicial process. In accord with canon law (cf. CIC can. 1342) the Ordinary
is not able to decree permanent penalties by extrajudicial decree. The
matter must be referred to the CDF which will make the definitive judgement
on the guilt of the cleric and his unsuitability for ministry, as well as
the consequent imposition of a perpetual penalty (SST art. 21, ‘2).
The canonical measures applied in dealing with a cleric found guilty of
sexual abuse of a minor are generally of two kinds: 1) measures which
completely restrict public ministry or at least exclude the cleric from any
contact with minors. These measures can be reinforced with a penal precept;
2) ecclesiastical penalties, among which the most grave is the dismissal
from the clerical state.
In some cases, at the request of the cleric himself, a dispensation from
the obligations of the clerical state, including celibacy, can be given pro
The preliminary investigation, as well as the entire process, ought to be
carried out with due respect for the privacy of the persons involved and due
attention to their reputations.
Unless there are serious contrary indications, before a case is referred
to the CDF, the accused cleric should be informed of the accusation which
has been made, and given the opportunity to respond to it. The prudence of
the bishop will determine what information will be communicated to the
accused in the course of the preliminary investigation.
It remains the duty of the Bishop or the Major Superior to provide for the
common good by determining what precautionary measures of CIC can. 1722 and
CCEO can. 1473 should be imposed. In accord with SST art. 19, this can be
done once the preliminary investigation has been initiated.
Finally, it should be noted that, saving the approval of the Holy See,
when a Conference of Bishops intends to give specific norms, such provisions
must be understood as a complement to universal law and not replacing it.
The particular provisions must therefore be in harmony with the CIC / CCEO
as well as with the Motu Proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (30 April
2001) as updated on 21 May 2010. In the event that a Conference would decide
to establish binding norms it will be necessary to request the recognitio
from the competent Dicasteries of the Roman Curia.
III. Suggestions for Ordinaries on Procedures:
The Guidelines prepared by the Episcopal Conference ought to provide
guidance to Diocesan Bishops and Major Superiors in case they are informed
of allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clerics present in the territory
of their jurisdiction. Such Guidelines, moreover, should take account of the
a.) the notion of ‘sexual abuse of minors’ should concur with the
definition of article 6 of the Motu Proprio SST (‘the delict against the
sixth commandment of the Decalogue committed by a cleric with a minor below
the age of eighteen years’), as well as with the interpretation and
jurisprudence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, while
taking into account the civil law of the respective country;
b.) the person who reports the delict ought to be treated with respect. In
the cases where sexual abuse is connected with another delict against the
dignity of the sacrament of Penance (SST art. 4), the one reporting has the
right to request that his or her name not be made known to the priest
denounced (SST art. 24);
c.) ecclesiastical authority should commit itself to offering spiritual and
psychological assistance to the victims;
d.) investigation of accusations is to be done with due respect for the
principle of privacy and the good name of the persons involved;
e.) unless there are serious contrary indications, even in the course of
the preliminary investigation, the accused cleric should be informed of the
accusation, and given the opportunity to respond to it.
f.) consultative bodies of review and discernment concerning individual
cases, foreseen in some places, cannot substitute for the discernment and
potestas regiminis of individual bishops;
g.) the Guidelines are to make allowance for the legislation of the country
where the Conference is located, in particular regarding what pertains to
the obligation of notifying civil authorities;
h.) during the course of the disciplinary or penal process the accused
cleric should always be afforded a just and fit sustenance;
i.) the return of a cleric to public ministry is excluded if such ministry
is a danger for minors or a cause of scandal for the community.
The Guidelines developed by Episcopal Conferences seek to protect minors and
to help victims in finding assistance and reconciliation. They will also
indicate that the responsibility for dealing with the delicts of sexual
abuse of minors by clerics belongs in the first place to the Diocesan
Bishop. Finally, the Guidelines will lead to a common orientation within
each Episcopal Conference helping to better harmonize the resources of
single Bishops in safeguarding minors.”
NOTE ON THE CIRCULAR LETTER FROM THE CDF
VATICAN CITY, 16 MAY 2011 (VIS) – Below is the note from the director of the
Holy See Press Office, Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J., regarding the Circular
Letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Episcopal
Conferences on the Guidelines for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of
minors by clerics:
“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has asked every Bishops’
Conferences in the world to prepare ‘Guidelines’ for dealing with cases of
sexual abuse of minors by clergy, in ways appropriate to specific situations
in different regions, by May 2012.
In its ‘Circular Letter’, the Congregation has offered a broad set of
principles and indications, which will not only facilitate the formulation
of the guidelines and therefore a uniformity of conduct of ecclesiastical
authorities in various nations, but will also ensure consistency at the
level of the universal Church, while respecting the competence of bishops
and religious superiors.
Priority is given to victims, prevention programs, seminary formation and
an ongoing formation of clergy, cooperation with civil authorities, the
careful and rigorous implementation of the most canonical recent legislation
in the area are the principal considerations that must structure the
Guidelines in every corner of the world.
* * *
In recent days, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has sent to
all Episcopal conferences a ‘Circular Letter to assist Episcopal Conferences
in developing Guidelines for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors
perpetrated by clerics’.
The preparation of the document was announced in July, at the time of the
publication of new rules for the implementation of the Motu Proprio ”
Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela ” (see Note Fr. F. Lombardi, in OR,
16/07/2010, 1, and http://www.vatican.va, Abuse of minors. The Church’s response).
H.E., Cardinal Levada, Prefect of the Congregation, later informed of its
preparation during the meeting of the Cardinals at the November Consistory
(see Press Release on the Afternoon Session, 11/19/2010).
The document is accompanied by a letter of presentation, signed by
Cardinal Levada, illustrating its nature and purpose.
Following the revision of norms on sexual abuse of minors by members of
the clergy, approved by the Pope last year, ‘it seems opportune that each
Episcopal Conference prepare Guidelines’ whose purpose will be to assist the
Bishops of the Conference to follow clear and coordinated procedures in
dealing with these instances of abuse. Such Guidelines would take into
account the concrete situation of the jurisdictions within the Episcopal
To this end, the Circular Letter ‘contains general themes’ for
consideration which naturally must be adapted to national realities, but
which will help to ensure a coordinated approach by the various episcopates
as well as – precisely thanks to the Guidelines – within the Episcopal
Regarding the drafting of new Guidelines or the revision of existing ones,
Cardinal Levada’s letter also gives two indications: first, to involve the
Major Superiors of clerical religious Institutes (to take into account not
only diocesan clergy, but also religious), and then to send a copy of the
completed Guidelines to the Congregation by the end of May 2012.
In conclusion, two concerns are clear:
1. The need to address the problem promptly and effectively with clear,
organic, indications that are suitable to local situations and in relation
to the norms and civil authorities. The indication of a specific date and a
relatively short period within which all Episcopal conferences must develop
Guidelines is clearly a very strong and eloquent statement.
2. Respect for the fundamental competence of the diocesan bishops (and
Major Superiors) in the matter (the wording of the Circular is very keen to
stress this aspect: the guidelines are intended to ‘assist the diocesan
bishops and Major Superiors’).
The Circular Letter itself is short but very dense, and is divided into
The first part develops a set of general considerations, including in
Priority attention to the victims of sexual abuse: listening to the
victims and their families, and a commitment to their spiritual and
The development of prevention programs to create truly safe environments
The formation of future priests and religious and exchange of information
on candidates to the priesthood or religious life who are transferred.
Support for priests, their ongoing formation and informing them of their
responsibilities regarding the issue, how to support them when they are
accused, dealing with cases of abuse according to law, the rehabilitation of
the good reputation of those who have been unjustly accused.
Cooperation with civil authorities within their responsibilities.
‘Specifically, without prejudice to the sacramental internal forum, the
prescriptions of civil law regarding the reporting of such crimes to the
designated authority should always be followed’. This cooperation should be
implemented not only in cases of abuse by clergy, but by any employee who
works in a Church structure.
The second part addresses applicable canonical legislation in force today,
after the revision of 2010.
It refers to the power of bishops and Major Superiors in preliminary
investigation and, in the case of a credible allegation, their obligation to
refer the matter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which
offers guidance for the handling of the case.
It speaks about the precautionary measures to be imposed and information
to be given to the accused during the preliminary investigation.
It refers to the canonical measures and ecclesiastical penalties that can
be applied to offenders, including dismissal from the clerical state.
Finally, it specifies the relationship between canon law valid for the
entire Church and any additional specific particular norms that given
Episcopal Conferences deem appropriate or necessary, and the procedure to be
followed in such cases.
The Third and final part lists a number of useful observations in
formulating concrete operational guidelines for bishops and major superiors.
Among other things, the need to offer assistance to victims is stressed as
well as the need to treat the complainant with respect and ensure the
privacy and reputation of the people involved; to take due account of the
civil laws of the country, including any obligation to notify the civil
authorities; to ensure the accused information on the allegation and an
opportunity to respond, and in any case a just and worthy support; to
exclude the cleric’s return to public ministry, in case of danger to minors
or of scandal to the community. Once again, the primary responsibility of
bishops and Major Superiors is reiterated, a responsibility which can not be
replaced by supervisory bodies, however useful or necessary they may be in
support of this responsibility.
The Circular therefore represents a very important new step in promoting
awareness throughout the Church of the need and urgency to effectively
respond to the scourge of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. Only in
this way can we renew full credibility in the witness and educational
mission of the Church, and help create in society in general, safe
educational environments of which there is an urgent need.”
OP/ VIS 20110516