Vatican Hears Sex Abuse Cases Sent to Pope

By Nicole Winfield
Associated Press, carried in Baltimore Sun [STATE]
March 28, 2004

VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican, implementing a change in the way it handles clerical sex abuse cases and other serious crimes against church law, has begun delegating cases that normally would have gone straight to the pope instead to his key orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The congregation tribunal that handles such cases involving lower-ranking prelates is expanding to include crimes involving bishops, cases which had previously been decided by the pope, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, a prosecutor in the congregation, told The Associated Press on Sunday.

Pope John Paul II called for the shift in the April 30, 2001, document "Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela," which outlined how the most serious crimes against church law should be handled. In a March 16 letter, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, advised Vatican officials that the decision was being put into effect.

The crimes addressed in the pope's 2001 document include the sexual abuse of minors, crimes concerning the Eucharist, such as the sacrilegious use of the host, and crimes concerning the confessional, such as soliciting sex from someone who has come to a priest for confession.

Scicluna said the pope decided to refer all such cases -- including those implicating high-ranking churchmen -- to the congregation because it has more experience in dealing with them.

"Since this congregation is dealing with these cases on other levels, it is reasonable to expect that the experience required in these case would be valuable in the other types of cases," he said in a telephone interview.

He said he could not say how many cases were pending, or how many extra files the pope's decision to delegate high-ranking cases to the congregation would add to the tribunal's heavy workload.

Already, John Paul told members of the congregation last month that they had seen a "noteworthy increase" in their caseload since the abuse scandal erupted in the United States in January 2002, with dozens of reports of abusive priests who had been moved from parish to parish rather than punished.

Since then, more than 325 of the United States' 46,000 clergy have either resigned or been barred from church work.

After the abuse crisis, U.S. bishops adopted a Vatican-approved policy that allows bishops to conduct a confidential, preliminary inquiry when a molestation claim is made to determine whether it is plausible. If it is, the accused priest is put on leave and then must go before a clerical tribunal to determine his guilt or innocence.

The work of the Vatican tribunals has been particularly vexing to victims groups, who have accused the church hierarchy of favoring the protection of priests over their victims. They have also complained about the secrecy surrounding the Vatican's judicial procedures.

The Vatican says such secrecy is necessary to protect the rights of all involved.

In February 2003, John Paul approved another set of changes in church policy to help American bishops deal more swiftly with the worst offenders. The changes allowed lay people to serve on tribunals hearing cases in U.S. diocese and also allowed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to oust particularly egregious offenders from the priesthood without a church trial.

Priests punished by such administrative means had recourse to appeal the decision to cardinals within the congregation, but no higher authority.

There has never been a way for churchmen to appeal decisions made by the pope, since he is the highest judicial authority in the Roman Catholic Church.