Rome — The Italian bishops' conference encouraged its members to cooperate with civil authorities in cases of clerical sexual abuse, but said the bishops have no legal obligation to report abuse allegations to the police or other civil authorities.
In addition, the new Italian church norms say the bishops "are exonerated" from releasing to the state documents in their possession or information connected with abuse cases.
Because a bishop is not a public official and is not charged with duties of "public service, he does not have the juridical obligation -- save for a moral duty to contribute to the common good -- to report to civil judicial authorities news he has received concerning illicit matters" of sex abuse, the guidelines said.
The guidelines are the first national norms published by the Italian bishops' conference for dealing with the sexual abuse of minors by priests. The guidelines were published on the conference website March 28 after being approved by the bishops in January.
The directives, running about five pages, said the "sad and serious phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors by priests calls for a renewed commitment by the church, which is called to face the issue with a spirit of justice, in line with the present guidelines," it said.
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"The bishop who receives a complaint of abuse must always be available to listen to the victim and his or her family members," the norms said, assuring them that the case will be dealt with justly, offering them spiritual and psychological support and respecting the victim's freedom to take "judicial action."
The bishops promised greater attention would be given to exchanging information when candidates for priestly or religious life are transferred from one seminary to another or from one diocese or religious institute to another. It did not suggest the same kind of information exchange taking place in the case of the transfer of already ordained men.
"The bishop will treat his priests like a father and a brother," the norms said, "taking care of their permanent formation and in such a way that they may appreciate and respect chastity and celibacy."
The guidelines said that during any canonical investigation, the bishop has the right to do whatever he deems necessary to avoid the risk of possible further abuse. "The simple transfer of the priest generally ends up being inadequate" as a response, the norms said, unless "substantially changing his duties" involves a transfer.
"It is important the bishop cooperate with civil authorities" when they are in the process of conducting a criminal investigation or trial, the norms said. However, "the bishops are exonerated from the obligation to turn in or show documents concerning what they knew or that are in their possession" because of provisions in the Lateran Pacts, a formal treaty between Italy and the Holy See.
The agreement between the two states, signed in 1929 and modified in 1984, says Italy recognizes the "full freedom of the Catholic Church to carry out its pastoral, educational and charitable mission" and ministry, and respects its jurisdiction in church matters. The pact also stipulates that, because of the special nature of their ministry, church ministers do not have to provide any information to state judges or authorities.
Judicial authorities may ask for information about what canonical procedures have been carried out, but they cannot order such documents or the bishops' complete archives to be "shown or sequestered." However, the norms said, bishops can volunteer to communicate individual bits of information.
The guidelines also stated that the Holy See and the Italian bishops' conference as a whole hold "no responsibility, direct or indirect, for eventual cases of abuse."
The guidelines were drafted after the Vatican's doctrinal congregation mandated that bishops in every nation and region have clear and coordinated procedures for protecting children, assisting victims of abuse, dealing with accused priests, training clergy and cooperating with civil authorities.
The Italian bishops had submitted brief guidelines to the doctrinal congregation in 2012. The congregation made a number of suggestions and changes, which are reflected in the final norms, the Italian bishops said.
Describing sexual abuse of minors as "a crime prosecuted by civil law," the doctrinal congregation said bishops should follow local laws when they require reporting cases of sexual abuse to police.
The Vatican has insisted that church law requires bishops and religious superiors to obey local laws on reporting suspected crimes; however, it also has said that where reporting is not mandatory and the victim does not want to go to the police, the victim's wishes must be respected.
Some countries have stricter norms, for example, "in cases where there is a justified suspicion" of abuse, the bishops of Switzerland said the church should go to the police, "unless the victim or his representative objects."
However, they added, if there appears to be an "immediate danger" of a church employee sexually abusing a child again, the police must be informed.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, a member of the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which Pope Francis established, said one task facing the commission is to make recommendations regarding church officials' cooperation with the civil authorities.