Vatican Official: Bishops Accused of Abuse Could Face Church Trial

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
Downloaded April 1, 2004

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Under a new Vatican procedure, bishops accused of sexual abuse against minors will face a possible church trial overseen by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Until now, cases of sexual abuse or other serious crimes against church law were reserved to the pope if the accusations involved bishops, patriarchs or cardinals, said Msgr. Charles Scicluna, an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

But Pope John Paul II is delegating the handling of those cases to the doctrinal congregation, Msgr. Scicluna told Catholic News Service March 29.

The reason is that in 2001 the doctrinal congregation was given competency over sex abuse cases against clerics and has the organizational resources and experience to deal with similar cases involving bishops, he said.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the doctrinal congregation, informed other Vatican agencies of the change in a letter dated March 16.

Vatican sources emphasized that the pope could still decide to intervene and deal directly with a specific case involving a bishop or cardinal.

They also stressed that a church trial is a hypothetical scenario for an accused bishop; it would involve contested cases. The expectation is that a bishop facing well-founded accusations would agree to resign.

In April 2001, the pope signed a document reserving jurisdiction to the doctrinal congregation in cases of priests accused of "delicta graviora," or more serious crimes, against church law. The category includes sexual abuse by priests against minors, as well various acts committed by priests against the sanctity of the Eucharist and against the sacrament of penance.

Under provisions of the papal document, in tandem with special norms adopted for U.S. dioceses in 2002, most cases of clerical sexual abuse in the United States are handled in initial stages by local church authorities with oversight by the Vatican doctrinal congregation. The papal document and the U.S. norms establish a church trial of the accused as the normal route for contested cases; it also provides for a less complex "administrative penal process" in case of overwhelming evidence against an accused priest.


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