New Policy in Italy: Catholic Bishops Are Not Obligated to Report Child Sexual Abuse

With the Vatican’s blessing — pun intended — Italy’s bishops have adopted a new policy pertaining to their obligations to report child molestation to the police.

Specifically, the policy advises that bishops have no official obligation to report the sexual abuse of children to any legal authorities outside of the Catholic Church.

According to the Italian Bishops’ Conference, these new guidelines reflect directives from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the very same Vatican office responsible for investigating cases of sexual abuse (allegedly) perpetrated by priests. Rather than requiring all abusers to confront the criminal justice system, these guidelines call on bishops to consider their “moral duty to contribute to the common good,” as they understand it, in deciding how to approach a given case. This allows plenty of leeway for bishops to make the exact same moral calculation that inspired sex-abuse cover-ups in the first place: better to see a few abusers go unpunished than to blemish the reputation of Holy Mother Church.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops’ conference, defends the policy by pointing out that Italian law does not impose a duty to report suspected child abuse. He adds that some victims may not wish to report the abuse or press charges, and this policy is designed to protect those people. Says Bagnasco:

What is important is to respect the will of the victims and their relatives, who may not want to report the abuse, for personal reasons. We need to be careful that we in the clergy do not undermine the right to privacy, discretion, and confidentiality, and the right of the victims to not be ‘exposed’ in the public square.

Since 2010, bishops have been instructed to report molestation and other forms of abuse where national law requires them to do so. In jurisdictions where failure to report child abuse is not a criminal offense, bishops are free to remain silent, though the court of public opinion has made some pretty firm pronouncements on whether or not that’s a morally advisable strategy.

For instance, victims’ rights group SNAP is unimpressed with Bagnasco’s reasoning. SNAP has long advocated for mandatory reporting of child abuse, arguing that, although victims’ privacy rights matter and must be handled respectfully, stakeholders’ top priority should be preventing extant offenders from harming more children.

The Holy See has also been faced criticism from the United Nations for its failure to uphold the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it ratified in 1990, long before this most recent media firestorm about priestly sexual abuse. In a recent report, UN experts estimated that the Church’s failure to report its child-abusing clerics has resulted in the victimization of “tens of thousands of children.”  (The Vatican’s ambassador to the UN, Silvano Tomasi, blamed the report’s critical tone on gay-rights advocates within the committee.)

American child abuse reporting laws vary from state to state, but at least some states legally require priests, bishops, and other clergy to report suspected sexual abuse. (Find the statutes for your state here.) Failure to adhere to this law, however, doesn’t always lead to the loss of one’s bishopric or one’s status within the Catholic Church. (The case of Bishop Robert Finn, convicted of failure to report yet still serving as bishop, serves as an example.)

Won’t somebody please think of the children?

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Sara Lin Wilde

Sara Lin Wilde is a recovering Catholic (and cat-holic, for that matter - all typographical errors are the responsibility of her feline friends). She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where she is working on writing a novel that she really, really hopes can actually get published.


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