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Vatican Directs Priests Accused of Pedophilia to Stand Trial in Secret Church Courts

Scandalized by public outcry over widespread pedophilia and sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy, Pope John Paul II issued a directive ordering the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith to set up guidelines for handling the problem. The Congregation determined that priests suspected of pedophilia must be tried in secret ecclesiastical courts presided over by their peers, other priests, rather than civilian courts. Tod Tamberg of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles defended the Congregation’s insistence on secret proceedings saying that they would “protect the rights of both the accusers and the accused…from the trauma of being put on public display.” It is unclear, however, if victims can achieve justice through these secret Church tribunals.

A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and expert on sexual abuse by priests, notes that many clergy members have allowed pedophiles to remain in their posts as priests. In September 2001, a French court sent a Roman Catholic bishop to jail for failing to inform police that a priest in his diocese had admitted to sexually abusing children. In the U.S., Church dioceses have been ordered to pay millions in damages for concealing sexual abuse and pedophilia. Most shocking, however, is that the Congregation is silent on whether a bishop should inform secular authorities, such as the police, if a priest is found guilty in the ecclesiastical court.

In March 2001, the National Catholic Reporter exposed the sexual abuse of nuns by clergy throughout the world, citing cases of abuse and rape in 22 countries and the United States. In at least one case, the sexual abuse led to death, as one nun, at the urging of the priest who raped her, died after a botched abortion. An American coalition of over 140 religious, human rights, and women’s rights organizations, including the Feminist Majority Foundation, immediately called for an independent fact-finding mission and launched demonstrations in New York and Washington, DC. The Call to Accountability Campaign, led by Catholics for a Free Choice, also highlighted the connection between sexual abuse and the spread of AIDS among nuns. According to reports, sexual abuse is particularly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, where priests believe sexual intercourse with nuns is safer because nuns are presumed to be free of the HIV/AIDS virus. In one diocese alone, nine nuns who had been raped by clergy died of AIDS.

For more on this topic, see the Feminist Daily News Wire Special Series: Priests, Rape, and AIDS.

Media Resources: Reuters, 1/8/02; LA Times, 1/9/02; Feminist Majority Foundation

© Feminist Majority Foundation, publisher of Ms. magazine

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