EVEN WHEN a religious institution has its own procedures for punishing wayward clergy, the sexual abuse of children is a serious crime that warrants prosecution by civil authorities. But when the Vatican revised its disciplinary system for sex-abuser priests, it missed the opportunity to take an unambiguous stand against pedophiles and those who protect them. The new rules do not order church officials to report allegations of sex abuse to the police, nor do they establish even internal penalties for bishops who cover up cases of abuse. Until the church adopts a zero-tolerance policy, justice cannot be served, and the worldwide uproar over the church’s handling of such cases will continue.
At least two of the changes announced last week were beneficial. First, the church will be quicker to conduct internal trials of priests accused of abusing children. Second, a new rule doubles the statute of limitations for abuse cases to 20 years from the victim’s 18th birthday. Both of these reforms will streamline the church’s process for identifying and prosecuting cases of sexual abuse.
Still, the new rules fail to bring the worldwide church’s practices in line with those recently adopted by US bishops; in the United States, priests who are found guilty of even one case of pedophilia are to be forced out, and bishops who learn of sexual abuse allegations against priests must notify authorities. A Vatican spokesman said last week that the new rules are meant to deal only with the church’s internal procedures. This narrow approach comes off as grudging, and it presumes a level of confidence in the hierarchy’s ability to handle abuse cases. Yet in a number of countries, as in Massachusetts, the church’s credibility has suffered amid reports that officials ignored instances of abuse, transferred known pedophile priests from parish to parish, and kept information from parishioners and law enforcement.
Abuses by clergy aren’t unique to the Catholic Church. The ongoing sexual abuse case against Stanley Z. Levitt, a rabbi and former teacher at the Maimonides School in Brookline who is now accused of molesting a handful of boys in the 1970s, shows that different types of religious hierarchies often respond to troubling accusations in the same hushed manor. Even after questions were raised about Levitt’s fitness to teach young boys, he was allowed to move to Philadelphia and, worse yet, to be in contact with children there. It took over three decades for charges to finally be brought against him.
The possibility that some clergy members will use their spiritual roles to gain access to minors makes it all the more vital that the Catholic Church and other religious institutions cooperate with civil authorities. The clergy do not operate outside of the criminal law. Likewise, the institutions they work for should enact policies that operate in concert with the legal system, and within the bounds of common sense and decency.