The cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presented the new Vademecum for handling cases of sexual abuse of minors by clerics.

Cardinal Luis Ladaria, SJ, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in a presentation that the “Vademecum on certain points of procedure in treating cases of sexual abuse of minors committed by clerics” is the result of numerous requests sent by Bishops, Ordinaries, Superiors of Institutes of consecrated life and Societies of apostolic life to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to have at their disposal a tool that could help them in the delicate task of correctly conducting cases regarding deacons, priests and bishops when they are accused of the sexual abuse of minors.

His written presentation, sent to journalists by the press office, noted that, “Recent history attests to greater attention on the part of the Church regarding this scourge. 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. This is a complex path that leads into a dense forest of norms and procedures before which Ordinaries and Superiors sometimes find themselves lacking the certainty how to proceed. Thus, the Vademecum was primarily written for them, as well as for legal professionals who help them handle the cases.

“This is not a normative text,” explained the cardinal prefect. “No new law is being promulgated, nor are new norms being issued. It is, instead, an ‘instruction manual’ that intends to help whoever has to deal with concrete cases from the beginning to the end, that is, from the first notification of a possible crime (notitia de delicto) to the definitive conclusion of the case (res iudicata). Between these two points there are periods of time that must be observed, steps to complete, communication to be given, decisions to take.”

Cardinal Ladaria explained that, “the sources for this text are both juridical and practical. On the normative level, the principal references are the current Code of Canon Law, the Substantive Norms and procedural norms regarding delicts (crimes) reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith promulgated by the Motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela (2001, updated in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI), and the more recent Motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi (2019).”

He added that, “Alongside these normative texts is another source for the Vademecum: the praxis of the Congregation, matured over the course of the years, particularly from 2001 on, in which the first norms appeared that were specifically dedicated to the more serious crimes.”


Archbishop Giacomo Morandi spoke to Vatican News about the new Vademecum. Following are several of the Q&A from that interview.

Q. Does this document contain new indications with respect to previous ones?

No. No new rules are being promulgated. The real novelty, however, is that for the first time the procedure is described in an organized way – from the first report of a possible crime to the definitive conclusion of the cause – uniting the existing norms and the praxis of the Congregation. The norms are well-known, while the practice of the Congregation, that is, the practical way of applying the norms, is known only by those who have already dealt with these cases.

Q: What cases fall under the competence of your Congregation?

In general, the crimes reserved to our Congregation are all those against the faith, and only the most serious (in the language now in use we commonly speak of delicta graviora) against morality and the administration of the Sacraments. The Vademecum, however, refers to only one of these crimes, which article 6 of the Motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela applies to a cleric when he commits an offense involving a minor that violates the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue. These are the cases that make the most headlines in the media, also because of their seriousness.

Q: When does the Church consider it a matter of abuse of “minors”? How has the age limit changed?

In the criminal sphere, a minor is a person who has not yet reached the age of 18. Other age distinctions, which refer to ages below 18, are not relevant in this sense. The Latin Code of Canon Law, in can. 1395 § 2, still speaks of 16 years of age, but the Motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela promulgated by John Paul II in 2001 raised the age to 18. Cases of “abuse” (as just said, an ‘offense involving a minor that violates the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue’) are often easy to delineate, for example sexual relations as such, or other instances of physical contact that are not properly “relations” but have a clear sexual intent. Other times, however, cases are not so easy to delineate, involving nuances that must be evaluated to determine if they are delicta graviora in the juridical sense according to laws in force at the time.

Q: What is most striking is the change in attitude towards anonymous complaints, which were once simply thrown out. What has changed, and why should an anonymous complaint still be taken into consideration?

This is a delicate question. It has become clear that a peremptory attitude in one sense or another is not conducive to the search for truth and justice. How can a complaint which, even if anonymous, contains certain evidence (e.g. photos, films, messages, audio…), or at least concrete and plausible clues of the commission of a crime, be thrown out? Ignoring it just because it is not signed would be wrong. On the other hand, how can all reports of abuse be accepted, even generic ones and those without a sender? In this case, it would be inappropriate to proceed. It is therefore necessary to carry out a careful discernment. Generally speaking, we do not fully credit anonymous complaints, but we also do not forego a priori their initial evaluation, in order to see if there are objective and obvious determinants, those which we call fumus delicti in legal language.

Q: We are talking about crimes that are usually committed without the presence of witnesses. How is it possible to verify the validity of the charges to ensure that the guilty parties are punished and can no longer harm others?

We use trial tools that are commonly employed to verify the reliability of evidence. Many crimes, not only those in question, are committed without witnesses. But that does not mean that we cannot arrive at certainty. There are procedural tools that allow this: the reliability of the persons involved, the consistency of the facts declared, the possible seriality of the crimes, the presence of documents containing evidence, etc. It must be said that on several occasions the accused, aware in conscience of the evil committed, admits to it in court.

Q: How can we avoid that an innocent person be unjustly accused and condemned?

When the facts are not sufficiently proven, the principle of in dubio pro reo applies. This principle underpins our legal culture. In these cases, rather than declaring innocence, one declares not guilty.