Italian Bishops Publish First Clerical Sex Abuse Norms

The Italian bishops' conference released its first ever set of guidelines for handling accusations of clerical sexual abuse, urging bishops to cooperate with civil authorities, but also making it clear that bishops in Italy have no legal obligation to report suspected cases to police.

Bishop Mariano Crociata, general secretary of the bishops' conference, presented the guidelines to reporters May 22 and told them that 135 cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors had been reported between 2000 and 2012.

The bishop did not give further details about the cases or how they were handled, other than to say that none of the priests involved will be allowed to return to normal pastoral work where they would have contact with children.

The introduction to the Italian guidelines says that a bishop's first concern must be "the protection of minors, care for the victims of abuse and the formation of future priests and religious."

A bishop informed of a case of abuse "always must be available to listen to the victim and the victim's family, assuring them that all care will be taken to treat the case with justice and making a commitment to offer spiritual and psychological support while respecting the freedom of the victim" to take the matter to the police.

The introduction also urged bishops to take special care when screening candidates for the seminary and priesthood and providing for their formation, adding that it is particularly important to exchange information with a transfer candidate's previous diocese, seminary or religious order.

The permanent council of the Italian bishops' conference approved the guidelines in January and distributed them during the conference's spring assembly held at the Vatican.

Drawn up in response to an order by the Vatican in May 2011 that every bishops' conference had to have guidelines in place within one year, the Italian norms still must be approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Italians were one of the last bishops' conferences in Western Europe to draw up national guidelines.

While the introduction to the guidelines mentions the need for outreach to victims and for care in selecting and training priests, the brief norms focus almost exclusively on summarizing Vatican guidelines and canon law on the steps to follow in investigating allegations and dealing with priests when they are accused and when the accusations appear to be well-founded.

Looking specifically at Italian law, the guidelines say "the cooperation of the bishop is important" in criminal investigations of clerical sexual abuse.

However, the guidelines also say that under Italian law, bishops "do not have the juridical obligation to report to state judicial authorities news they receive" regarding sex abuse.

The guidelines do not indicate any plans to create national structures for coordinating or monitoring the church's response to abuse allegations, to create child protection programs or to institute any special priestly formation programs.

The Vatican's 2011 letter said that in every nation and region, bishops should have "clear and coordinated procedures" for protecting children, assisting victims of abuse, dealing with accused priests, training clergy and cooperating with civil authorities. It encouraged bishops to consider implementing child protection programs, which some bishops' conferences already encourage on both the parish and diocesan level. The letter also insisted that while bishops should work together to ensure a uniform national approach to dealing with accusations and preventing abuse, the final responsibility always lies with the individual bishop.

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