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The Law Regarding Sex Abuse in the Church

from the Catholic News Service


Under church law, victims of sexual abuse have a right to compensation from offending priests but not from local bishops, unless the bishop has failed to remove a definite abuser from ministry, a Vatican official said.

"From a canonical point of view, the bishop or religious superior is neither morally nor legally responsible for a criminal act committed by one of his clerics," said Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a Vatican City appeals court judge and a consulter to several Vatican agencies.

While a priest is subordinate to his bishop in the Catholic hierarchy, it is not like an employee's relationship with his employer. A priest does not work for the bishop, but "is at the service of God and the whole church community.

Father Ghirlanda, dean of the canon law faculty at Rome's Gregorian University, made his comments in an article published in the May 18 edition of the influential Jesuit magazine, La Civilta Cattolica (Catholic Civilization.) The magazine's contents are reviewed prior to publication at the Vatican.

"If an accuser has truly been the victim of an abuse, he has the right to compensation for damages on the part of the delinquent cleric, but not on the part of the bishop, from a canonical point of view," Father Ghirlanda said.

The exception would be when a bishop had been previously notified of abuse allegations and failed to use the means at his disposal -- including a church investigation -- to ascertain the facts and correct the problem or remove the cleric from ministry. In that case, a bishop would have some legal responsibility under church law for subsequent abuse.

The bishop also could have some degree of moral responsibility if he was negligent in the priest's formation before and after ordination.

Father Ghirlanda said clerical sex abuse involves the rights and responsibilities of three major parties: the priest, the victim and the church community. Bishops have a responsibility to protect the rights of all and make sure the pastoral life of the faithful is not damaged.

"If a bishop or a religious superior arrives at the moral certainty that an accusation is well-founded, he must quickly intervene to protect the community from other scandals and damage.

This can include a judicial or administrative process to impose penalties, as spelled out under canon law -- but things should reach that point only if "fraternal correction" and rebukes don't reform the offender and repair the scandal.

Father Ghirlanda said a bishop should generally act in a way that does not risk leaving a priest damaged by false accusations. Specifically, it is not a good pastoral practice for the bishop to inform civil authorities of abuse allegations against a priest, so that the bishop can avoid being implicated in any future civil action taken by an accuser.

He said he did not think an accused priest should be forced to take psychological tests that aim to discover an inclination to commit abuse. Such a practice violates his right to privacy under church law.

In the case of a priest who has sexually abused in the past but who is reassigned to a parish after psychological therapy, the bishop should not inform the new parishioners of the past abuse, he said.

This would violate the priest's "good reputation" and completely delegitimize him in the eyes of parishioners. If the bishop thinks he could commit another such crime, it would be better not to reassign him to a parish.

In his 12-page article, Father Ghirlanda wrote extensively about the risk of false accusations against priests, either by lying individuals or in "defamation campaigns" by the mass media, and the damage that can be done if such accusations are made public.

He said it was a bishop's duty to root out such calumny and protect the church community from its effects. A Catholic who makes such an accusation sins gravely.

"All the more serious is the behavior of a false accuser if he has introduced an action in the civil forum with the aim of extorting money.