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Vatican publishes sex abuse policy guide

April 12, 2010

by Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: April 12 2010

The Vatican on Monday responded to the sex abuse scandal sweeping the Catholic Church by publishing guidelines on how it handles cases of alleged paedophile priests, stressing that local bishops must follow civil law in reporting crimes to the authorities.

The Holy See’s attempt to stem the crisis came as Pope Benedict XVI – said by a Vatican editor to be “very calm and serene” – prepares to visit Malta this weekend on his first overseas mission since the controversy erupted across Europe and the US.

Victims of abuse by priests in Malta have called for a meeting with the pontiff and an apology.

In its “introductory guide which may be helpful to lay persons and non-canonists”, the Vatican said on its website that the local diocese should investigate “every allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric”.

If allegations have a “semblance of truth” then local bishops, who have the power to hold Church tribunals and defrock guilty priests, must refer cases to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed,” the guide says.

The clarification was seen as an explicit rejection of the claim by critics of Pope Benedict that a document he sent to bishops in 2001 – when he was a cardinal heading the Congregation – was intended to keep sex abuse cases secret within the Church. However, the guide does not indicate what penalties await bishops who had covered up cases of paedophilia.

Barbara Blaine, president of the US-based Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, dismissed the clarification of Church policies as “largely irrelevant”.

“Bishops answer to virtually no one and can easily ignore policies. We must focus on behaviour, not policies, and on deeds, not words,” she said.

The main concern of bishops “continues to be their reputations, not their flock’s safety”, she added.

Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, conceded that the Church could have done a better job in communicating its response to the scandal, but he also attacked the media for launching what he called an anti-Church campaign to boost flagging circulations.

Mr Vian said the media were wrong to depict the Pope as isolated and badly informed. The Pope reads prepared press reviews and newspapers “and nothing is hidden from him”, Mr Vian told reporters.

But he had no explanation as to why the Pope had not spoken out on the crisis beyond his letter to the Irish faithful on March 20.

The Vatican has said Pope Benedict is willing to meet victims of abuse, as he did in the US and Australia in 2008, but has not responded to the requests in Malta.

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