ROME -- The Vatican should prepare a document giving local bishops and their tribunals a detailed procedure based on canon law for conducting their initial investigations of accusations of sexual abuse against a priest, said Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, head of the Vatican's supreme court.
Archbishop Burke is prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura and archbishop emeritus of St. Louis.
Thanks to the media and lawyers, the public has a mistaken impression that the Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law is not capable of dealing effectively and decisively with accusations against priests, Archbishop Burke told a conference on the priesthood.
"One cannot help but observe, for example, that there already exists a universal norm -- Canon 1722 -- that contributes to the prevention of scandal and other dangers as a penal process is being carried out," the archbishop said March 11.
The canon he cited says: "To prevent scandals, to protect the freedom of witnesses, and to guard the course of justice, the ordinary, after having heard the promoter of justice and cited the accused, at any stage of the process can exclude the accused from the sacred ministry or from some office and ecclesiastical function, can impose or forbid residence in some place or territory, or even can prohibit public participation in the Most Holy Eucharist."
The Vatican in 2001 issued new norms for the way the Church handles sex abuse cases, requiring local bishops to report probable cases of clerical sexual abuse against minors to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The doctrinal congregation can allow a local diocesan tribunal to handle the case under the congregation's procedural rules or intervene and take up the case immediately in its own tribunal.
While the Vatican also has approved more detailed norms for the United States, Archbishop Burke said it would be helpful to present "the discipline of the universal Church in these matters, which is contained in the Code of Canon Law: the proper procedures to follow to investigate first the accusation of a delict (crime), and then to see if it is necessary to refer it to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" because there is evidence that a serious crime has been committed.
The document would outline "how you deal with an accusation itself," determining whether or not a probable case of sex abuse exists and, therefore, must be referred to the Vatican, the archbishop told Catholic News Service after his speech.
"These kinds of accusations also happened in the past, and there is a whole wisdom in the canonical tradition on how to deal with these things, obviously to protect the person who was alleged to have been victimized, to protect the priest who is accused and to protect the whole Church," he told CNS.
"The Church is quite prepared to deal with this; it has throughout the centuries, and what I am saying is that we have to make that discipline clear so that when cases happen, they can be dealt with," he said in the interview.
"The Church, especially in its smallest and most defenseless members, has suffered a very serious wound because of the acts of abuse of minors committed by priests," he said in his speech to the conference, which was sponsored by the Congregation for Clergy as part of the Year for Priests.
"The just remedy, the remedy that will protect and safeguard" all Church members and the Church itself "must be found in the canonical practice developed over the centuries and articulated in the current universal legislation," he told the priests.