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Experts Call for Vatican Judicial Reforms To Promote Transparency and a Fair Trial

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Psychoneurologist Denise Buchanan, from left, psychotherapist Peter Isely, Kazlaw Injury & Trauma Lawyers' support team specialist Leona Huggins, and President of Ending Clergy Abuse Timothy Law, holding a wooden cross, arrive at the Vatican Sept. 27, 2023. The group ended a zero-tolerance 75-mile pilgrimage initiative, along the Via Francigena, ahead of the synod of bishops starting on Oct. 4 at the Vatican, to protest clergy abuse. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Two decades after the Vatican was first forced to reckon with the clerical sexual abuse crisis, church experts on Thursday (April 11) addressed the institution’s failures to safeguard victims, promote transparency and guarantee a safe trial.

For years, sexual abuse victims lamented that church trials under canon law fail to inform them about not just the proceedings but also the sentence. Despite Pope Francis’ efforts to reform church law and inject transparency into the institution, church officials and experts agreed much more still needs to be done.

“The church is called to speak the truth and to be true. It can’t play hide and seek with itself,” said the Rev. Jordi Pujol, a theologian teaching communications at the Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome. The excessive prudence in addressing sexual abuse cases, he added, has led to many mistakes and made it so that “too often church leaders treat the faithful like perpetual minors.”

Vatican experts, canon lawyers and theologians addressed the push for transparency in the church, weighing the need to protect victims with the right to a just defense, during a conference titled “Penal Justice in the Church: Safeguarding the Victim and the Safety of the Accused” on Wednesday and Thursday at the university.

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After The Boston Globe’s 2002 Spotlight investigations revealed a shroud of secrecy surrounding sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church, the Vatican has had to grapple with creating safeguarding measures and ensuring transparency.

Pope Benedict XVI met with victims at the time and created the framework for how the church should address these issues, drawing from his experience as the head of the Vatican’s department on doctrine, which also handles cases of abuse. Pope Francis picked up the torch, creating commissions and appointing experts, which resulted in the March 2019 document “Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” that established new procedures for reporting and combating sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults in the church.

Statues on Bernini’s colonnade at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. (Photo by Marco Verch/Creative Commons)

The document was published after Francis convened Vatican abuse prevention experts and survivors to the Vatican for a summit on abuse in February 2019. But victims’ advocates have maintained that the institution still lacks transparency and accountability for prelates who are guilty of abuse or cover-up.

“The need for transparency is undeniable at this point,” Pujol said, adding that the right to information has not yet been established in the church, unlike other fundamental rights, which has been very damaging for victims.

A canonical trial rarely offers any punishment to convicted abusers, who are often removed from the priesthood and ordered to live a life of prayer and penance, Pujol explained. Victims hoping to see the crime vindicated are often left disappointed.

“It’s important for the church to build bridges, which is what Pope Francis has done, between the church and state laws,” Pujol told Religion News Service. “Things are not all solved within canon law.”

Listening centers for abuse victims in dioceses have a responsibility to encourage victims to report the abuse cases to civil authorities, he continued, even though they often are past the statute of limitations.

Lawyers at the conference also said the secretive nature of the canonical trials makes it difficult for them to correctly inform victims and defendants. Canon Lawer Alessia Gullo admitted during the event that lawyers could perform “a synodal function,” especially during the early stages of the proceedings, by meeting with all those involved and explaining what the options are and whether the case has a chance in court.

“A meeting between the victi