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Vatican lawyer opposes release of abuse data

An influential canon lawyer at the Vatican has written an article in the Italian Jesuits' review La Civilta' Cattolica, saying bishops should not turn over allegations or records of sexual abuse by priests to civil authorities.

The article by Fr Gianfranco Ghirlanda, dean of the canon law faculty at Gregorian University in Rome, is the second indication in recent weeks that inside the Vatican, influential church officials may disapprove of the response of US bishops to the recent scandal. Under pressure from prosecutors and victims' advocates, dozens of bishops have recently turned over reports of accusations and records to civil authorities.

Ghirlanda wrote that a priest who is reassigned to a new parish after being treated for a history of sexual abuse should not have his "good reputation" ruined by having his background revealed to the new parish. It would be better simply not to place the priest in a new parish if the bishop is confident about the priest, Ghirlanda said.

However, he wrote, if a bishop knew of allegations and failed to investigate, or if he failed to remove a known abuser from the ministry, then under canon law he would have some legal and moral responsibility.

Sources in the US say that the comments by Ghirlanda and other Vatican officials may serve as a warning to US bishops who are to meet in Dallas next month not to propose anything too far-reaching if they try to formulate a binding national policy on sexual abuse. Any policy the US bishops produce is subject to approval by the Vatican and could be held up as a standard for the church in other parts of the world.

"Whatever the U.S. bishops do, it looks like they may have an uphill fight to get some of it approved in the Vatican," said Fr Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Jesuit journal based in New York.

Ghirlanda's article also takes issue with another practice that has become common for many U.S. bishops handling accusations of sexual abuse by their priests. For more than 15 years, U.S. bishops have been sending accused priests to clinics to be evaluated by therapists and to undergo treatment.

Ghirlanda wrote that an accused priest should not be forced to take psychological tests because it is a violation of his right to privacy under canon law.

The 12-page article by Ghirlanda carries weight because like everything published in La Civilta Cattolica, it was reviewed before publication by the secretariat of state at the Holy See.

La Civilta' Cattolica

San Francisco Chronicle

20 May 2002