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At summit bishops consider 21 action items to handle, prevent abuse

VATICAN (Agencies): Immediately exhorting asking bishops and religious superiors to be concrete in confronting the clerical sexual abuse crisis and the need to protect children in the Church, CNS reported that Pope Francis handed them a list of 21 action items to consider at the start of the February 21 to 24 Vatican summit on the Protection of Minors in the Church.
 
From publicising the contact information for reporting cases of abuse to cooperating with local law enforcement, the action items were drawn from suggestions made by bishops from around the world, the pope said, and should “assist in our reflection.”
 
He stressed that the items are “a simple point of departure” and “are not meant to detract from the creativity needed in this meeting.”
 
The first item on the list is preparing “a practical handbook indicating the steps to be taken by authorities at key moments when a case emerges.”
 
Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who deals with abuse cases for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, later told reporters that his office is preparing such a handbook—in a simple question-and-answer format—and it should be ready for publication within a few months.
 
Archbishop Scicluna said the items “govern practically all the aspects of getting it right,” but they must be discussed by summit participants. “These are not decisions taken, otherwise we could go home today.”
 
The action items also included suggestions that dioceses have “trained and expert people” on hand for an initial discernment of accusations and insisted that the diocese “inform the civil authorities and the higher ecclesiastical authorities in compliance with civil and canonical norms.”
 
The archbishop insisted on the importance of involving local police and other authorities, especially because while bishops exercise spiritual authority over their priests, they have no actual “coercive measures—and we don’t have any nostalgia for the coercive measures of the Inquisition”—to force priests to cooperate with investigations and obey when punishment has been imposed.
 
Another suggestion was to establish “specific protocols for handling accusations against bishops,” a matter that was highlighted in 2018 when the public was informed of credible allegations made against the now defrocked Theodore McCarrick.
 
Participants were also asked to discuss ways to “accompany, protect and treat victims, offering them all the necessary support for a complete recovery” and to offer healing and support to the communities where abusive priests ministered.
 
Perhaps more controversially, the possible action items also included considering “penitential and recovery routes for the perpetrators” and an insistence on the “presumption of innocence” found both in natural law and canon law.
 
To protect the rights of an accused, one suggestion said, “It is necessary to prevent the lists of the accused being published, even by the dioceses, before the preliminary investigation and the definitive condemnation.”
 
Archbishop Scicluna said there must at least have been a review of the allegation and determination that it is credible. A criminal court trial or full canonical process finding the person guilty would be what consists defining the allegation as “substantiated,” he said.
 
One item not on the list that the archbishop said should be included, is a clearer policy on keeping victims informed of the status of cases against their abusers. He said the local Church should assign someone to keep in contact with the victims as the process proceeds and the victims have a right to be informed about the process’ conclusion.
 
“Many victims are hurt by the fact that they do not receive the final report,” he said. “It’s a lack of respect.”
 
Another suggestion was that the Church “observe the traditional principle of proportionality of punishment with respect to the crime committed,” including when deciding whether “priests and bishops guilty of sexual abuse of minors leave public ministry” or are dismissed from the clerical state all together.
 
Also on the list was the idea of changing the Code of Canon Law “to raise the minimum age for marriage to 16 years.” The current code says the minimum age is 16 for males and 14 for females, but bishops in many countries have passed particular laws, approved by the Vatican, that establish 16 as the minimum age for both.
 
Apparently, in some parts of the world the sexual abuse of a 14- or 15-year-old girl is not considered abuse of a minor since she is old enough to marry. However, in cases of clerical sexual abuse, current Church law defines a minor as any person under 18 years of age.
 
Several survivors of abuse, however, expressed surprise about and unhappiness with the list.
 
“I don’t know why a practical handbook is number one,” Peter Isley, spokesperson for Ending Clergy Abuse, an organisation that brings together activists from different countries, said in the The Guardian on February 21.
 
“What counts is that zero-tolerance should be written into Church law,” he was reported as saying.
 
Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean abuse survivor who helped organise the pre-summit encounter between the summit organisers and 12 abuse survivors, said “I felt that they had a open mind and that they sincerely want something to happen.” 
 
CNN reported Cruz as saying on February 20 that the 12 abuse survivors, including representatives from the groups Ending Clergy Abuse, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and BishopAccountability.org, shared their experiences of abuse. “And then there was a dialogue. Sometimes it got a bit intense, but there was a climate of respect.”
 
CNS reported that Leona Huggins, of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, found the list of suggestions to be “absolutely shocking,” especially because she and the other survivors who met with the summit organising committee were there to have their voices heard and none of their suggestions made it onto the list. She reportedly said the list actually rolls expectations and protection efforts “backwards.”
 
However, in the first formal talk of the summit, Luis Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines, acknowledged how Church leaders had for so long ignored the suffering of the victims of clerical sexual abuse and covered up the evil crimes of the perpetrators CNS reported.

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