That is what Grant Gallicho of Commonweal calls the circulatory letter that The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith sent to all the world’s bishops. The letter, which may be read here, was released to the general public at noon today. Mr. Gallicho, like many other journalists and bloggers, has given an excellent analysis of the letter, so I won’t try to cope it. Read it, and the letter, for yourself.
I will share some thoughts about it though. Generally, the letter is a good one. It places the first responsibility for dealing with cases of sexual abuse with the bishops and religious superiors. Secular media would have us believe all too often that it is the pope who is personally responsible for the crimes and how they are dealt with, but that is simply not true. The Holy Father, although many would argue against it, is not the CEO of a large company, and neither is he the employer of priests and bishops. Ordination and the vows a priest makes are ultimately not a contract between people, between employer and employee, but between a man and the Lord. But it is a bishop’s responsibility to act as a father for his priests, and with that comes responsibility.
The CDF’s letter contains nothing new. Rather it is a summary of the laws that are in place and the duties of a bishop when faced with the dreadful allegations of sexual abuse made against one of his priests. The General Considerations of the letter display where the Church’s priorities are: with the victims, the protection of minors, the formation of future priests and religious, the support of priest (even those who have been accused: “The accused cleric is presumed innocent until the contrary is proven” (I.3.d.)) and cooperation with civil authorities.
With this foundation, all the bishops’ conferences of the world are asked* to developed a set of guidelines in dealing with cases of sexual abuse by May 2012. That is in one year. So, considering all this, the letter could well be understood as an attempt by the CDF to get the world’s bishops back in one line. With a worldwide consistent approach in practice, the Church will be better equipped to not only deal with the crime of sexual abuse, but also with the attacks made from outside the Church. In the end, the bishops and religious superiors remain responsible, not only in dealing with abuse cases, but also in answering the request of the letter.
*This letter is an advisory and does not carry the weight of law. But the clear language and the expectations voiced, as well as the widely documented publication will ensure that a conference which fails in fulfilling this request will face serious questions.