Vatican tribunal overwhelmed by jump in clergy abuse cases

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith offices at the Vatican. PHOTO: AP

VATICAN CITY (AP) - The Vatican office responsible for processing clergy sex abuse complaints saw a record 1,000 cases reported from around the world this year - and still some regions that haven't reported any allegations at all.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is today overwhelmed, struggling with a skeleton staff that hasn't grown at pace to meet the four-fold increase in the number of cases arriving in 2019 compared to a decade ago.

"We're effectively seeing a tsunami of cases at the moment, particularly from countries where we never heard from (before)," said Monsignor John Kennedy, the head of the congregation's discipline section, which processes the cases.

He was referring to allegations of abuse that occurred for the most part years or decades ago. Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Italy and Poland have joined the US as being among the countries with the most cases arriving at the congregation, known as the CDF.

Msgr Kennedy spoke to The Associated Press and allowed an AP photographer and video journalists into the CDF's inner chambers - the first time in the tribunal's history that visual news media have been given access. Even the Vatican's most secretive institution now feels the need to show some transparency as the Church hierarchy seeks to rebuild trust with rank-and-file Catholics who have grown disillusioned with decades of clergy abuse and cover-up.

Pope Francis took his own step towards greater transparency with his decision this week to abolish the so-called "pontifical secret" that governs abuse cases. In making the announcement, the Vatican said the reform would facilitate cooperation with civil law enforcement.

The Vatican's explanation was striking, given that it amounted to an explicit admission that bishops had used the pontifical secret in the past as an excuse to refuse cooperation with criminal subpoenas and civil litigation.

But the CDF's struggles remain, and are emblematic of the overall dysfunction of the Church's in-house legal system, which relies on bishops and religious superiors, some with no legal experience or qualified canon lawyers on staff.

As a result, the Vatican finds itself still struggling to reckon with a scourge that first erupted publicly in Ireland and Australia in the 1990s, the US in 2002, parts of Europe beginning in 2010 and Latin America last year.

The CDF serves as the central processing centre for abuse cases as well as an appeals court for accused priests under the Church's canon law, a parallel legal system that dispenses ecclesiastical justice.

In the past, when the CDF was known as the Holy Office or the Sacred Roman and Universal Inquisition, such Church punishments involved burnings at the stake for heretics and publishing lists of banned books.

Today, CDF justice tends more towards ordering errant priests to prayer, penance and prohibition from celebrating Mass in public. In fact the worst punishment handed down by the Church's canon law, even for serial child rapists, is essentially being fired, or dismissed from the clerical state.

The CDF under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, persuaded Pope John Paul II to centralise the process in 2001, given bishops were failing to punish predator priests and were instead moving them around from parish to parish, where they could abuse again.

The 2001 revision calls for bishops and religious superiors who receive an allegation to conduct a preliminary investigation, which in the US is often done with the help of a lay review board.

If the bishop finds the claim has a semblance of truth, he sends the documentation to the CDF, which tells him how to proceed: via a full-blown canonical trial, a more expedited "administrative" procedure, or something else, including having the CDF itself take over the investigation.

Eventually the bishop or superior reaches a verdict and a sanction, up to and including dismissal from the clerical state, or laicisation.

If the priest accepts the penalty, the case ends there. If he appeals, the case comes to the CDF.

The trial appeals are decided in an ivory damask-walled conference room on the first floor of the Palazzo Sant'Uffizio, the CDF headquarters a stone's throw from St Peter's Square.

The room is dominated by a massive wooden crucifix on the wall that faces the square, and, in each corner of the room, a closed-circuit TV camera peers down on CDF staff.

The cameras record the debates on DVDs for the CDF's own archives and in case the pope ever wants to see what transpired.

It is wretched work, reading through case files filled with text messages of priests grooming their victims, psychological evaluations of paedophiles, and heart-numbing letters from men and women who were violated as children.

The CDF has processed 6,000 abuse cases since 2001, and at one point Francis lamented that it had a backlog of 2,000. But the CDF now must cope with the globalisation of the scandal that in 2001 seemed to be largely confined to the English-speaking world.

Today, the CDF counts just 17 officials, with occasional help from other CDF staff, plus top managers. Msgr Kennedy said he was planning to bring in Brazilian, Polish and bilingual American canonists to help offset expected departures of current CDF staff and to process cases from countries that are only now beginning to reckon with abuse.

But there are still countries the CDF has never heard from - a scenario that suggests "either that they're all saints or we don't know about them yet", Msgr Kennedy told AP.

The implication is that victims are still cowed, and bishops and religious superiors are still covering up. A new Vatican law mandates all abuse and cover-up be reported to Church officials, but there is no automatic penalty for failure to comply. And there has never been a review of compliance with the original 2001 law requiring cases be sent to the CDF.

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