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The Vatican Comes Up Short

The Vatican’s long overdue guidelines for fighting sexual abuse of children
are, unfortunately, just that — flimsy guidelines for a global problem that
requires an unequivocal mandate for church officials to work with secular
authorities in prosecuting rogue priests.

Instead, the Vatican has
issued nonbinding guidance
that punts the scandal back to the authority of
local bishops, who still will not face firm oversight or punishment for
cover-ups that recycled hundreds of abusive priests.

The directive came two days before a new study of the abuse problem that
cites the sexual and social turmoil of the 1960s as a possible factor in
priests’ crimes. This is a rather bizarre stab at sociological rationalization
and, in any case, beside the point that church officials went into denial and
protected abusers.

The Vatican directive is also seriously defective for playing down the role
of civilian boards in investigating abuses. The lay boards helped force the
American bishops to proclaim a zero-tolerance policy that was finally more
concerned about raped children than the image of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Vatican guidelines note that abusing children is a matter for secular law
and call for dioceses to create “clear and coordinated” policies by next year.
But the continuing stress on church priority in what essentially are criminal
offenses is disheartening.

Vatican officials say Rome should not interfere with the traditional
supremacy of local bishops. That was not the case earlier this month, when Pope
Benedict XVI removed Bishop William Morris of Australia from office. The bishop,
concerned with the shortage of priests, asked five years ago whether the Vatican
“may well” have to reconsider the bar to ordaining women or married men.

No dramatic dismissal was ordered for bishops well documented to have
overseen hush payments to victims and relocation of abusive priests. Splendid
Vatican sanctuary was extended to Cardinal Bernard Law after he had to resign
amid reports he covered up the scandal in Boston.

Most recently, ranking churchmen in Philadelphia rejected a grand jury
finding that as many as 37 priests suspected of abuse should not still be
serving. The diocese later suspended 26 amid public alarm. This should have been
a red flag to the Vatican that diocesan prelates need a no-nonsense fiat in
repairing the damage to children and the church from decades of shielding
abusive priests.