In the following section you will find essential questions and answers regarding how to handle cases of sexual abuse committed against minors within the Catholic Church. All of the subsequent information is drawn from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2020 Vademecum: On Certain Points of Procedure in Treating Cases of Sexual Abuse of Minors Committed By Clerics

What actions are to be taken when news about a possible crime is received? #

9. “A notitia de delicto, occasionally called notitia criminis, consists of any information about a possible delict that in any way comes to the attention of the Ordinary or Hierarch. It need not be a formal complaint.”

16. When a notitia de delicto is received, a preliminary investigation ought to ensue, provided that the report is “saltem verisimilis”

17. Even in cases where there is no explicit legal obligation to do so, the ecclesiastical authorities should make a report to the competent civil authorities if this is considered necessary to protect the person involved or other minors from the danger of further criminal acts.

21. Responsibility for the preliminary investigation belongs to the Ordinary or Hierarch who received the notitia de delicto, or to a suitable person selected by him.  The eventual omission of this duty could constitute a delict subject to a canonical procedure. 

What happens during the preliminary investigation of a crime? #

27. The investigation should be carried out with respect for the civil laws of each state.

32. The preliminary investigation takes place in accordance with the criteria and procedures set forth in canon 1717 CIC or canon 1468 CCEO.

34. The preliminary investigation should gather detailed information about the notitia de delicto with regard to facts, circumstances and imputability.  It is not necessary at this phase to assemble complete elements of proof (e.g., testimonies, expert opinions), since this would be the task of an eventual subsequent penal procedure.  The important thing is to reconstruct, to the extent possible, the facts on which the accusation is based, the number and time of the criminal acts, the circumstances in which they took place and general details about the alleged victims.

34. An Appendix to the present Vademecum contains a schematic outline of useful data that those carrying out the preliminary investigation will want to compile and have at hand.

How is the preliminary investigation initiated? #

38. If the competent Ordinary or Hierarch considers it appropriate to enlist another suitable person to carry out the investigation (cf. no. 21), he is to select him or her using the criteria indicated by canons 1428 §§ 1-2 CIC or 1093 CCEO.[4]

40. In accordance with canons 1719 CIC and 1470 CCEO, the Ordinary or Hierarch is to issue a decree opening the preliminary investigation, in which he names the person conducting the investigation and indicates in the text that he or she enjoys the powers referred to in canon 1717 § 3 CIC or 1468 § 3 CCEO.

48. Here too, consideration should be given to whether the Ordinary or Hierarch is obliged to inform the civil authorities of the reception of the notitia de delicto and the opening of the preliminary investigation.  Two principles apply: a/ respect for the laws of the state (cf. art. 19 VELM); and b/ respect for the desire of the alleged victim, provided that this is not contrary to civil legislation.  Alleged victims should be encouraged – as will be stated below (no. 56) – to exercise their duties and rights vis-à-vis the state authorities, taking care to document that this encouragement took place and to avoid any form of dissuasion with regard to the alleged victim. 

How are precautionary measures imposed on the person suspected of a crime? #

52. During the investigative process, a particularly sensitive task falling to the Ordinary of Hierarch is to decide if and when to inform the person being accused.

58. To defend the good name of the persons involved and to protect the public good, as well as to avoid other factors (for example, the rise of scandal, the risk of concealment of future evidence, the presence of threats or other conduct meant to dissuade the alleged victim from exercising his or her rights, the protection of other possible victims), in accordance with art. 19 SST, the Ordinary or Hierarch has the right, from the outset of the preliminary investigation, to impose the precautionary measures listed in canons 1722 CIC and 1473 CCEO.

61. A precautionary measure is not a penalty …. but an administrative act …  It should be clearly explained to the party in question that the measure is not penal in nature, lest he think that he has already been convicted and punished from the start.  

How is the preliminary investigation concluded? #

66. It is recommended, for the sake of equity and a reasonable exercise of justice, that the duration of the preliminary investigation correspond to the purpose of the investigation, which is to assess the plausibility of the notitia de delicto.

69. Once the preliminary investigation has concluded, whatever its outcome, the Ordinary or Hierarch is obliged to send, without delay, an authentic copy of the relative acts to the CDF. He is to provide his own evaluation of the results of the investigation (votum) and to offer any suggestions he may have on how to proceed.

74. Once the acts of the preliminary investigation have been sent to the CDF, the Ordinary or Hierarch is to await communications or instructions in this regard from the CDF.

What decisions are made in a penal process? #

84. The decision that concludes the penal process, whether judicial or extrajudicial, can be of three types:

• conviction (“constat”), if with moral certainty the guilt of the accused is established with regard to the delict ascribed to him.  In this case, the decision must indicate specifically the type of canonical sanction imposed or declared.

• acquittal (“constat de non”), if with moral certainty the innocence of the accused is established, inasmuch as no offence was committed, the accused did not commit the offence, the offence is not deemed a delict by the law or was committed by a person who is not imputable.

• dismissal (“non constat”), whenever it has not been possible to attain moral certainty with regard to the guilt of the accused, due to lack of evidence or to insufficient or conflicting evidence that the offence was in fact committed, that the accused committed the offence, or that the delict was committed by a person who is not imputable.

How is a penal process conducted? (CIC, cann. 1400-1670; CCEO, cann. 1055-1356)  #

85. By law, three penal procedures are possible: a judicial penal process; an extrajudicial penal process; or the procedure introduced by article 21 § 2, 2° SST.

86. The procedure provided for in article 21 § 2, 2° SST is reserved for the most grave cases, concludes with a direct decision of the Supreme Pontiff and requires that, even though the commission of the delict is manifestly evident, the accused be guaranteed the right of self-defence.

87. For the judicial penal process, the relative provisions of the law should be consulted, either in the respective Codes (CIC, cann. 1400-1670; CCEO, cann. 1055-1356) or in articles 8-15, 18-19, 21 § 1, 22-31 SST. 

89. According to articles 16 and 17 SST, a judicial penal process can be carried out within the CDF or can be entrusted to a lower tribunal.  

How is an extrajudicial penal process conducted? #

91. The extrajudicial penal process, sometimes called an administrative process, is a type of penal process that abbreviates the formalities called for in the judicial process, for the sake of expediting the course of justice without eliminating the procedural guarantees demanded by a fair trial.

93. Like the judicial process, the extrajudicial process can be carried out within the CDF or entrusted to a lower instance, or to the Ordinary or Hierarch of the accused, or to third parties charged with this task by the CDF, possibly at the request of the Ordinary or Hierarch.

94. The extrajudicial penal process is carried out with slightly different formalities according to the two Codes. If questions arise concerning which Code is applicable, it will be necessary to clarify with the CDF.

95. In CIC, when an Ordinary is charged by the CDF with carrying out an extrajudicial penal process, he must first decide whether to preside over the process personally or to name a delegate. He must also appoint two assessors who will assist him or his delegate in the evaluative phase.

97-98. Subsequently, the Ordinary (or his delegate) must initiate the process by a decree summoning the accused… It is most fitting that the accused, in accordance with the prescriptions of canons 1723 and 1481 §§ 1-2 CIC, be assisted by a procurator and/or advocate, either of his own choice or, otherwise, appointed ex officio.

104. Notification of the accusations and proofs takes place in order to give the accused the possibility of self-defence (cf. canon 1720, 1° CIC).

What happens at the end of a penal procedure? #

115. The Ordinary or his delegate invites the two assessors to provide, within a certain reasonable time limit, their evaluation of the proofs and the arguments of the defence, in accordance with canon 1720, 2º CIC.  

119. Should the delict be established with certainty, the Ordinary or his delegate (cf. canon 1720, 3º CIC) must issue a decree concluding the process and imposing the penalty, penal remedy or penance that he considers most suitable for the reparation of scandal, the reestablishment of justice and the amendment of the guilty party.

120. The Ordinary should always keep in mind that, if he intends to impose a perpetual expiatory penalty, according to article 21 § 2, 1º SST he must have a prior mandate from the CDF. 

128. In all cases, an authenticated copy of the acts of the process (unless these had been previously forwarded) and of the notification of the decree must be sent to the CDF.

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