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Church issues new norms on abuse cases

It's a start, but it isn't a great one

  • Fr. Jose Parappully, Kolkata
  • India
  • October 22, 2012
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On May 27 this year Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai promulgated Norms for Dealing with Cases Involving Sexual Abuse of Minors, applicable to the Catholic Church all over India.

Its main focus is on how Indian Church authorities are to follow guidelines given by Rome and how to communicate with Rome when handling an accusation.

I am glad that the Church in India has finally produced an official document that explains the process to be followed. However, I should say straight away that I am also extremely disappointed with it.

It is too narrow in its scope to be comprehensive and too much of an “in-house” document to have credibility before the general public.

I am also surprised that it does not begin with any mention of how the Church authorities feel about the prevalence of sexual abuse by Church personnel, nor any expression of empathy with the suffering of the victims, nor the Church’s determination to deal with abuse with the seriousness required. Neither is there an expression of commitment to protect the welfare of minors.

These are all concerns that should have been expressed in a preamble.

In fairness they are covered, at least partly, in an appendix. But it would have been more appropriate, I think, to present them in the form of a declaration by the bishops of India on the protection of minors, something like the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People from the US Bishops’ Conference.

In the form it’s currently in, it’s just an appendix.

To deal with the main substance of the Norms: with little introduction, they go straight into the legal requirements. These are formulated basically from Canon Law and juridical documents of the Church.

They relate only to cases where an accusation is made against members of the clergy or a religious congregation. But what happens if a lay person employed by a Church institution, such as a teacher in a Catholic school, is accused of sexual abuse of a minor? Are we to wait for another set of Norms for these other people?

To make some specific criticisms:

Requirement number 1 states that existing rules laid down in Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela (SST) and other documents produced by Rome must be adhered to. It would have been helpful if those stipulated documents had actually been reproduced here. How many are in possession of SST, or even acquainted with it? How many have actually read it?

Requirements 2 and 3(a) place an enormous burden on the victim in providing exhaustive detail before a complaint can be accepted. I can understand the need to guard against frivolous or false accusations. But it is not clear what would happen if a victim makes an accusation but is not able to provide all the details required.

What would be the response of the Church authorities then? Will no action be taken, even to verify if there is truth in the accusation, or the accused is indeed an abuser? And if there is truth in the accusation, will the authorities act? Or will the lack of all the required details provide a handy excuse for inaction?

There is more: we are told that the Preliminary Enquiry Committee consists entirely of Church personnel. Will this guarantee its independence and total objectivity?

Then there is the Sexual Offences Committee; I do wish it stipulated that a doctor and a lawyer should be named as members. Some cases will definitely require that kind of specialist expertise.

Still more of a concern is the membership of the National Review Board, dealt with in Norm 16. It does not have even one member who is not a Church authority and consists entirely of “three bishops appointed by the CBCI Standing Committee.”

Moreover, the ad hoc committee will comprise “the two CBCI Vice-Presidents and the Secretary-General.” So, not one single person who is not a senior Church member.  What are the public going to say and think about that? Where is the credibility?

Let's go back to the Norms formulated by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Incidentally, the italics that follow are added by me, for emphasis.

The US Norms stipulate that “the majority of the review board members will be lay persons who are not in the employ of the diocese/eparchy; but at least one member should be a priest, and at least one member should have particular expertise in the treatment of the sexual abuse of minors.”

They also demand “the Appellate Review Board in each diocese to be composed of at least five persons of outstanding integrity and good judgment. The majority of the members will be lay persons.”

And the National Review Panel set up by the Australian Bishops and Major Superiors consists of “up to nine independent members.”

These are not the end of my concerns. Here are some more:

Norm 17 speaks of the Bishop/Major Superior giving full cooperation to civil authorities, in case they are also examining the matter. I don't think it goes far enough; there is no word about the Church authorities’ obligation to report the matter to civil authorities, as mandated by the law of the land.

Norm 19 speaks of concern for protecting the good name of the alleged offender. I wish a similar concern was expressed for the suffering of the victim.

On the other hand, Norm 14, which deals with the care of the victim, is truly praiseworthy. I consider it the saving grace of the document. But at the same time, this is where some empathetic reference could have been made to the suffering of the victim, rather than leaving it in the appendix.

I understand the Indian bishops will soon formulate Norms for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of adult women in the Church. I hope they will be a little more comprehensive and satisfactory.

Salesian Father Jose Parappully is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years experience in assisting victims of sexual abuse. He is Founder Director of Bosco Psychological Services in New Delhi and the Sumedha Centre for Psychology and Spirituality in Jeolikote. 
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