Bishops are not morally or legally responsible for sexual abuse committed by priests in their dioceses, an Italian Jesuit magazine says, in an article published amid a sex abuse scandal that has engulfed the Roman Catholic Church.
The article, in the latest edition of the Vatican supported La Civilta Cattolica — Catholic Civilization — discusses the duties of Church leaders and comes as the institution faces accusations that senior clergy have shielded guilty priests.
Alleged sex abuse victims have launched court cases against accused both priests and their dioceses, but the article says that only the guilty cleric should be held responsible.
“From a canon law perspective, the bishop and the superior are neither morally nor judicially responsible for the acts committed by one of their clergy,” says the article by Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a canon law professor at the Pontificial Gregorian University in Rome.
The 13-page article also argues that a bishop should avoid informing a community about the past actions of a priest who has abused before, if the bishop believes that the priest would not commit such an act again.
The priest “would be totally discredited in front of his parochial community and in fact would be blocked from any effective pastoral action,” it says. “If the bishop fears that the priest could again commit a crime, then he mustn’t entrust to the priest a parish, but must act in a different way.”
In apparent reference to civil suits seeking damages from dioceses because of the acts of priests, the article says that the relationship between senior Church officials and their priests is not comparable to the relationship between an employer and a worker. “The cleric doesn’t ‘work’ for the bishop or for the superior, but is at the service of God,” it says.
“A certain level of moral responsibility would arise, however, if the bishop or the superior had not complied with the obligations they have regarding the clerics during both their formation and their ministerial life.”
It says that Church leaders confronted with cases of abuse should first attempt to resolve the problem by various means. “Only if these methods prove useless, the bishop and the superior may move ahead with the judicial process.”