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VATICAN CITY (RNS) The Vatican on Monday (April 12) published an on-line guide to its disciplinary procedures in processing cases of sexually abusive priests, including a mandate to cooperate with local civil authorities.
Running less than 700 words in length, the guide is intended for lay people and non-specialists in church law. Based on a 2001 decree by Pope John Paul II, it explains in ordinary language the rules followed by church officials, both at the local level and at the Vatican, in investigating and punishing cases of sex abuse.
According to the guide, the “local diocese investigates every allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric,” and refers every allegation with a “semblance of truth” to the Vatican’s doctrinal office, which since 2001 has had global jurisdiction over cases of pedophile priests.
“Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed,” the guide notes.
Some critics have pointed to a 2001 letter by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, imposing a “pontifical secret” on all sex abuse investigations as evidence he conspired to cover up for pedophile priests. The Vatican has insisted that bishops were never forbidden to report such crimes to the local civil authorities.
The online guide emphasizes the local bishop’s “power to protect children by restricting the activities of any priest in his diocese,” even before investigations have concluded.
Recent weeks have brought charges that Ratzinger, who ran the Vatican’s doctrinal office from 1981 until his election as pope in 2005, delayed acting against pedophile priests despite entreaties from local bishops who sought to discipline them.
The “most serious” penalty that can be imposed on a clerical sex abuser is defrocking (“dismissal from the clerical state”), either as a result of a trial or in rare cases by decree of the pope, the guide notes.
When accused priests themselves asked to be defrocked, the document notes, the pope can choose to grant their requests “for the good of the church.”
The guide notes that changes to the law governing the Vatican’s handling of sex abuse allegations are currently “under discussion,” but any such modifications “will not change” the rules outlined in the document.
By Francis X. Rocca
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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