New Vatican guidelines for bishops make reporting abuse to police optional (updated)

Two decades of scandals involving Catholic dioceses covering up allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy apparently hasn't made much of an impression on the Vatican.

The cover-ups have come close to destroying the Roman Catholic Church.  And yet, a new policy guideline for bishops released this month state that it is “not necessarily” the duty of bishops to report accusations of clerical child abuse and that only victims or their families should make the decision to report abuse to police.


A document that spells out how senior clergy members ought to deal with allegations of abuse, which was recently released by the Vatican, emphasised that, though they must be aware of local laws, bishops’ only duty was to address such allegations internally.

“According to the state of civil laws of each country where reporting is obligatory, it is not necessarily the duty of the bishop to report suspects to authorities, the police or state prosecutors in the moment when they are made aware of crimes or sinful deeds,” the training document states.

The training guidelines were written by a controversial French monsignor and psychotherapist, Tony Anatrella, who serves as a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family. The Vatican released the guidelines – which are part of a broader training programme for newly named bishops – at a press conference earlier this month and is now seeking feedback.

Details of the Catholic church’s policy were first reported in a column by a veteran Vatican journalist, John Allen, associate editor of the Catholic news site,

Allen noted that a special commission created by Pope Francis, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, had appeared to play no role in the training programme, even though it is supposed to be developing “best practices” to prevent and deal with clerical abuse.

Indeed, a church official familiar with the commission on abuse said it was the committee’s position that reporting abuse to civil authorities was a “moral obligation, whether the civil law requires it or not”. The official said the committee would be involved in future training efforts.

The current guidelines written by Anatrella make only passing references to prevention policies. The French monsignor is best known for championing views on “gender theory”, the controversial belief that increasing acceptance of homosexuality in western countries is creating “serious problems” for children who are being exposed to “radical notions of sexual orientation”. He did not return a request for comment.

The guidelines reflect Anatrella’s views on homosexuality. They also downplay the seriousness of the Catholic church’s legacy of systemic child abuse, which some victims’ right groups say continues to be a problem today.

It's possible to read too much into these guidelines, but as a matter of public relations, it's a disaster.  If a bishop is made aware of a specific case involving clergy and the molestation of a child, urging the family to report the crime to police simply isn't enough.  That's been the problem in the past – that the church basically looked away while predator priests were allowed to continue their attacks – usually in another parish.  Pressure was placed on families by the church hierarchy to let the diocese handle the problem. 

The guidelines suggest some sort of internal investigation before going to police.  It appears that the Vatican is trying to strike some kind of balance between the rights of clergy not to be falsely accused and the rights of victims.  On paper, that may be acceptable.  But in practice, it still looks like a cover-up – especially given recent history.

The guidelines fly in the face of what Pope Francis has been trying to accomplish with the abuse scandals.  It is likely they'll be scrubbed and replaced by more stringent rules governing the reporting of clergy abuse to police.

Update from deputy editor Drew Belsky: It is important to note that neither The Guardian nor the Crux piece that it cites saw fit to link to or reproduce the documents both organizations' reporters used to write their reports.  While it's necessary to avoid an ad hominem attack ("it's wrong because the intensely liberal and Church-hating Guardian published it"), one does have to make an extra effort to verify the information peddled by such a biased actor.  Having the source material on hand would have gone a long way in doing that – and would have said more for these publications' credibility.  (The Boston Globe, which runs Crux, is not exactly a crusader on Church matters, either.)

Regarding my colleague's allegations on what the unread document "apparently" says about the Church, it's worth mentioning that the Church has done much to deal with sexual abuse problems within her ranks – more, in fact, than other organizations that continue to have far more serious (yet much less reported) problems in this regard.  It's also worth mentioning that the scandal of sexual abuse in the Church is closely tied up with homosexuality – a point one rarely hears among the jeremiads against "pedophile priests," as if most of the victims were prepubescent children (wrong) or evenly distributed among boys and girls (wrong again).  So while The Guardian may delight in excoriating the Catholic Church, that same publication won't touch the real problem.  That would not be politically correct.

A more extensive defense of the Church – which, by the way, did not "come close" to being "destroyed" by the sex abuse scandal any more than she did by the Arian heresy – would exceed the space of an addendum to a blog post.  But the resources are out there.  I advise our readers to do their own research.  The Guardian and The Boston Globe, considering their lack of interest in providing their sources, may not be the best places to start.

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