ROME – Roman Catholic bishops should avoid telling congregations their parish priests sexually abused someone if the bishops believe the priests will not abuse again, a Vatican official said.
The Rev. Gianfranco Ghirlanda also said in an article to be published Saturday that church leaders have no legal or moral responsibilities if such abuse does occur.
The Vatican appeals court judge insisted church leaders must protect the "good name" of their priests and only a guilty cleric truly is responsible for his actions.
"From a canon law perspective, the bishop and the superior are neither morally nor judicially responsible for the acts committed by one of their clergy," said Ghirlanda, dean of canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
The article is in the influential Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica, which often reflects Vatican thinking. The Vatican is struggling to deal with worldwide allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
Ghirlanda argued that a priest whose past acts of abuse were revealed to his congregation "would be totally discredited in front of his parochial community and in fact would be blocked from any effective pastoral action."
"If the bishop fears the priest could again commit a crime, then he must not entrust to the priest a parish, but must act in a different way."
However, Ghirlanda also said priests should not be forced to take psychological tests to assess the likelihood of their committing abuse.
"To our thinking, it's not admissible that the incriminated cleric be forced to undergo a psychological investigation to determine if his personality is inclined to commit the crimes in question," the article said.
American church officials are accused of covering up sexual misconduct by priests, in some cases by moving known abusers from job to job. The church has paid millions of dollars in damages to victims and faces numerous lawsuits.
Dozens of priests have been suspended or forced to resign. Many dioceses also are informing local prosecutors of prior abuse allegations against priests.
This week, a Baltimore priest was shot, allegedly by a man who claimed the priest abused him, while another priest accused of sexual abuse apparently committed suicide in Maryland.
The ongoing U.S. scandal prompted last month's extraordinary meeting at the Vatican between Pope John Paul II, 12 of the 13 American cardinals and some top American bishops. The clergymen chose not to set strict rules before a June 13-15 meeting of American bishops in Dallas.
Rules agreed on by the bishops in June will be passed back to the Vatican for ratification.
Ghirlanda, in an apparent reference to victims' civil suits against dioceses, also wrote that the relationship between senior church officials and their priests is not comparable to that of an employer and employee.
"The cleric doesn't 'work' for the bishop or for the superior, but is at the service of God," Ghirlanda wrote.
He also said church leaders confronted with cases of abuse should attempt to resolve the problem without going to the authorities.
"Only if these methods prove useless, the bishop and the superior may move ahead with the judicial process," Ghirlanda said.
He added, "The cleric's right of good name must be protected by the bishop and superior. Therefore any act that has public repercussions, undertaken by the bishop or superior in dealing with one of his clerics is legitimate only if the good of the community requires it and if the bishop and superior have reached moral certainty."