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How bishops should respond to news of an alleged sex abuse case

2017-05-20

When a bishop receives news of an alleged sex abuse case, some may be surprised to know there is a process when handling each case.  

MIGUEL YAÑEZ
Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors
"When this large number of cases exploded in some countries in the Church, in my opinion the greatest indignation was not only the existence of these cases, but the mismanagement by the leaders of the Church. I think that point is a point that is changing. Today there are some clear rules about what a bishop or religious superior must do when he receives a complaint from a victim."

FR. JUSTIN WACHS 
Canon Lawyer
"When a bishop receives an accusation, he's going to do everything he can to make himself or his staff available to receive the alleged victim's story and denunciation of the cleric: the priest or deacon or maybe even a bishop. That's not an easy moment because that person usually comes hurting. It's a very challenging moment.”

The first step is to question the truth and credibility of the case and reliability of the persons involved. There should be a clear statement of compliance with both civil and Church authorities, and requirements and neutrality in order to investigate the matter.

Once the bishop receives the news, he begins the process of the preliminary investigation, gathering all evidence from both sides. He must act quickly, but not react to the case without listening and considering both sides.

As such, the person making a report has a right to meet with a Church representative about the issue as soon as possible, always leaving the option for the person to speak to a lay, clergy or religious member, depending on his or her level of comfort. 

MIGUEL YAÑEZ
Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors
"The preventive measure is this, that the denounced priest must immediately leave the Ministry. He must be suspended. In the meantime, a preliminary investigation is made and if the complaint has evidence to proceed, then the priest continues to be suspended until the trial is over.”

FR. JUSTIN WACHS 
Canon Lawyer
 "So he (the bishop) needs to act in a well-planned and prudent way. Not only is he to assist the victims, the alleged victims, but he also has to try to protect the reputation of the priest. Because as we said, father is presumed innocent until otherwise proven guilty.”

Once the bishop has gathered the evidence, the case is sent to Rome to the Congregation of the Faith, who then gives the bishop direction on the process to be taken. This could include a Judicial or Administrative process. 

The Congregation studies details like when the crime was committed and the age of the victim when the abuse took place, considering the ecclesiastical laws regarding the ages of minors and type of offense committed. They then send the case back to the bishop with specific orders on what to do.

MIGUEL YAÑEZ
Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors
"The pope and the Commission especially recommend that ecclesiastical authorities collaborate and even denounce the priest. Firstly, because we are citizens and we are subject to civil justice, and secondly, because he is a criminal who can continue committing crimes."

FR. JUSTIN WACHS 
Canon Lawyer
"Justice can be expeditiously served and the truth of the matter can be made known, and if necessary penalties imposed, or Father removed from ministry or if there is a current and present danger, that it is removed immediately.”

The whole process varies case-by-case, but the Church's goal is to carefully study the case to discover the truth and help the alleged victim and their families find protection, healing and reconciliation. If necessary, the priest must also do penance and make amends, and if found guilty, make sure he cannot commit future abuses. 


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