Silence on sex abuse? Nope, 'The Vatican' didn't tell that to its bishops

Catholic activist Bill Donohue scolded pretty much all mainstream media yesterday.  Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, faulted them for saying the Vatican has told its new bishops they don’t have to report instances of sexual abuse.

The flap revolves around remarks of a French monsignor, and whether he was spelling out church policy. The highly cited Guardian, for instance, reported on this new "Vatican document":

The Catholic church is telling newly appointed bishops that it is “not necessarily” their duty to report accusations of clerical child abuse and that only victims or their families should make the decision to report abuse to police.
A document that spells out how senior clergy members ought to deal with allegations of abuse, which was recently released by the Vatican, emphasised that, though they must be aware of local laws, bishops’ only duty was to address such allegations internally.
“According to the state of civil laws of each country where reporting is obligatory, it is not necessarily the duty of the bishop to report suspects to authorities, the police or state prosecutors in the moment when they are made aware of crimes or sinful deeds,” the training document states.

Things are no different on this shore of the Atlantic.  

"A newly released Catholic church document tells bishops they don't have to report clerical child abuse accusations to the police," United Press International says.

"Catholic Church Tells Bishops They Are Not Obliged to Disclose Child Sex Abuse: Report,"  according to the once-precise Time magazine.

Best of the bunch, meaning the worst, is the Daily Beast, with its snide headline "Speak No Evil: Vatican Refuses To Talk About Sex Abuse" -- bolstered with the summary, " The pope’s special commission to root out sex abuse in the church goes from bad to worse as one monsignor tells new bishops they’re under no obligation to report abuse to police."

If it's all true, it would be a drastic shift of church policy: In 2014 Pope Francis created the Vatican-level Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. But is it all true?

Start with the source. All of the stories are based on a presentation by Msgr. Tony Anatrella, a Paris psychotherapist and consultant to two Vatican departments. Actually, the stories are based on Anatrella as quoted by John Allen Jr. in Crux, the Catholic newsmagazine of the Boston Globe. And some are based on other reports based on Crux -- as is a Newsweek article, which quotes the Guardian.

Anatrella's remarks were part of a presentation to incoming bishops during their training on abuse prevention, giving his views on when to alert authorities. That's different from setting Vatican policy, says Bill Donohue:

A statement by one French monsignor during a training course for new bishops is being interpreted by some major media outlets as if it were an official Vatican document. It is nothing of the sort. In a presentation that he made to some bishops, he contended that the clergy were not required to report suspected abuse cases to the authorities. That, however, was his opinion, and nothing more.
Most of these erroneous reports cited Crux journalist John Allen as their source. He wrote a splendid piece about Msgr. Tony Anatrella’s words to the new bishops. Nowhere, however, did Allen claim that Anatrella’s words amounted to a new Vatican policy or a "Vatican document."

That viewpoint is echoed by the Rev. Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Vatican.

Donohue may be taking things a bit far in blasting all mainstream media, though. Newsweek, for one, nuances its article:

A Vatican source told Newsweek that the comments made during the presentation are Anatrella’s opinion and not an official Vatican position. The source added that in some countries it is difficult for clergy to report abuse to authorities due to the “quite hostile” relationship between church and state. In countries with corrupt police forces and hostile governments, for example, there is greater risk of not having a presumption of innocence and a fair trial, he said.

And Allen's Crux story hardly lets the Vatican off the hook. He asks why the presentation was handed to Anatrella, who has worked for two pontifical departments -- those for the Family and for health care workers -- but not the Protection of Minors commission established by Francis himself.

Allen also finds the monsignor's viewpoint "seriously wanting," for a church that's still trying to fix its image:

For instance, Anatrella argued that bishops have no duty to report allegations to the police, which he says is up to victims and their families. It’s a legalistic take on a critical issue, one which has brought only trouble for the Church and its leaders. Why, one wonders, was it part of a training session?
Most basically, canonical procedures kick in only after abuse has been alleged. Presumably the goal ought to be to stop those crimes from happening, and in that regard it’s striking that Anatrella devoted just a few paragraphs to abuse prevention, using abstract language without concrete examples.

Even the Guardian article, used as a source by Newsweek, adds: "Indeed, a church official familiar with the commission on abuse said it was the committee’s position that reporting abuse to civil authorities was a 'moral obligation, whether the civil law requires it or not.' The official said the committee would be involved in future training efforts."

That nuance didn’t get into several other reports on the matter. So Donohue still has a point. Many media folks seem to prefer it if the Vatican goes from bad to worse.

Photos: Thumbnail of colonnade at St. Peter's Square; copyright Antony McAulay via Shutterstock. Above: Rotunda of St. Peter's Basilica, by Wolfgang Stuck;  public domain photo via Wikimedia.


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