Vatican issues guide for investigating priests accused of abuse 

by Christopher Lamb

Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
CNS photo/Paul Haring

The Vatican has issued a detailed guide for how Church leaders should handle allegations of abuse by clergy against children.

The handbook, a Vademecum, sets out how bishops and religious superiors should investigate abuse, including the obligation to report allegations to civic authorities.  

Although the instruction manual effectively summarises existing laws, it is the first time the Vatican has published how the internal Church process for investigating and prosecuting abuse cases works. This tool was proposed by the landmark abuse summit which took place in the Vatican on 21-24 February 2019, in the latest attempt to forge a unified Church response to the abuse crisis.  

“The course of justice cannot alone exhaust the church’s response, but it is necessary in order to come to the truth of the facts,” Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the department which produced the Vademecum, explained. 

The handbook says that allegations of abuse do not have to be a formal complaint but can come through anonymous sources, a third party or social media. Bishops and superiors are urged not to simply dismiss allegations even if they appear doubtful.

“At times, a notitia de delicto (information about an offence) can derive from an anonymous source, namely, from unidentified or unidentifiable persons,” the manual explains.  

“The anonymity of the source should not automatically lead to considering the report as false.  Nonetheless, for easily understandable reasons, great caution should be exercised in considering this type of notitia, and anonymous reports certainly should not be encouraged.”
Church leaders, the guidebook stresses, are obliged to refer allegations to the relevant state authorities, and onto Rome where they will be investigated by the doctrine congregation. 

“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,” the guide explains. 

The Vademecum also explains about allegations being made during confession, saying the priest “should seek to convince the penitent to make that information known by other means, in order to enable the appropriate authorities to take action.”
In Australia, a new law will force priests to break the confidentiality – or seal – of confession and to report any abuse revealed in the confessional, and a public inquiry in England and Wales is examining this issue. 

The handbook looks at how to make an initial judgment about the veracity of allegations. It explains that an allegation must lack “the semblance of truth” before it is investigated, which would include “if it is a well-known fact that the person accused could not have been present at the place of the delict when the alleged actions took place.” 

At the same time, “it is advisable that the Ordinary or Hierarch communicate to the CDF the notitia de delicto and the decision made to forego the preliminary investigation due to the manifest lack of the semblance of truth.”

During a preliminary investigation, the guide explains, “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, together with a preliminary evaluation of the eventual physical, psychological and moral harm inflicted”. 

Since the February abuse summit, which brought together the presidents of bishops conferences from across the world, the Pope and the Holy See have issued a series of anti-abuse measures in an attempt to tackle the global sexual abuse crisis. These include changes to laws over the pontifical secret, new norms for the reporting of abuse and ensuring bishops are held accountable, and new anti-abuse laws for the Vatican City State.


This is what the Vatican says on paper.

I wonder will it all really happen in practice?

The civil authorities in all countries should make it legally binding that those who do not report reported to them be prosecuted.

I notice that they also say that even anonymous reports submitted on social media should also be investigated.

Is there a danger that in these cases people will maliciously make false reports about priests they dont like?

The investigating authorities will need to proceed cautiously with anonymous social media complaints.