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The Most Reverend Wilton D. GREGORY
President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
With your letter dated November 15, 2002, you requested the recognitio for the "Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons", approved by the Episcopal Conference at the Plenary Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops which took place in Dallas on June 13-15, and revised in the recent General Meeting held in Washington on November 11-14.
I am pleased now to send you the Decree of recognitio for the "Essential Norms", and wish to express renewed and sincere appreciation for the pastoral concern and resolve with which the bishops of the United States have addressed the distressing situation caused by such aberrant crimes.
The Holy See is fully supportive of the bishops' efforts to combat and to prevent such evil. The universal law of the Church has always recognized this crime as one of the most serious offenses which sacred ministers can commit, and has determined that they be punished with the most severe penalties, not excluding -- if the case so requires -- dismissal from the clerical state (cf. Canon 1395 § 2). Moreover, the Holy Father in the year 2001 already had determined that this crime should be included among the most serious delicts ("graviora delicta") of clerics, to underscore the Holy See's aversion to this betrayal of the trust which the faithful rightly place in Christ's ministers, and to ensure that the guilty will be appropriately punished. He therefore gave to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith a special competence in this matter, applicable for the whole Church, establishing a particular procedure to be followed (cfr. Motu proprio "Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela" of May 18, 2001, AAS, 93, 2001, p. 737).
As the Holy Father has affirmed on various occasions, the Holy See is spiritually united to the victims of abuse and to their families, and encourages particular concern for them on the part of the bishops, priests and the whole Catholic community. This closeness is now once again confirmed through the approval of the present "Essential Norms", which will help to restore, wherever necessary, the trust of the faithful in their pastors, assuring at the same time the defense of the innocent and the just punishment of the guilty.
The "Essential Norms" in their present formulation are intended to give effective protection to minors and to establish a rigorous and precise procedure to punish in a just way those who are guilty of such abominable offenses because, as the Holy Father has said, "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young".
At the same time, by ensuring that the true facts are ascertained, the approved Norms protect inviolable human rights -- including the right to defend oneself -- and guarantee respect for the dignity of all those involved, beginning with the victims. Moreover, they uphold the principle, fundamental in all just systems of law, that a person is considered innocent until either a regular process or his own spontaneous admission proves him guilty.
The genuine ecclesial communion between the Episcopal Conference and the Apostolic See, demonstrated once again in these painful circumstances, prompts us all to pray earnestly to God that from the present crisis might emerge, as the Holy Father has stated: "a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church" (cf. L'Osservatore Romano, 24 April 2002). In this way, the bonds of communion which unite the bishops with their priests and deacons, and the faithful with their pastors, will be further strengthened.
The Holy See, moreover, together with the bishops of the United States, feels duty-bound in justice and in gratitude to reaffirm and defend the good name of the overwhelming majority of priests and deacons who are and have always been exemplary in their fidelity to the demands of their vocation but have been offended or unjustly slandered by association. As the Holy Father has said, we cannot forget "the immense spiritual, human and social good that the vast majority of priests and religious in the United States have done and are still doing". Indeed, it appears necessary to devote every available resource to restoring the public image of the Catholic priesthood as a worthy and noble vocation of generous and often sacrificial service to the People of God.
As regards religious priests and deacons I would ask the representatives of the Episcopal Conference to continue to meet with the representatives of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men to examine more closely the various aspects of their particular situation, and to forward to the Holy See whatever agreements they may reach.
With the promise of prayers for your important work in serving the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I remain
Sincerely yours in Christ,
+ Giovanni Battista Card. Re
Prefect Congregation for Bishops
Vatican City, December 8, 2002
[Original text: English]