Among the 17 modifications to its canonical norms dealing with "grave crimes" (gravioribus delictis) against the sacraments announced today, the Vatican has extended the time allowed for a case against a priest for sexual abuse from 10 to 20 years from a victim's 18th birthday and has speeded the processes for expelling guilty clergy from the priesthood. The new norms make illegal the use of child pornography and treat the abuse of disabled people as equivalent to that of minors.
In PR terms, it is unfortunate that these attempts to tighten church procedures against clerical sex abuse are lumped in with other norms, including the attempted ordination of a woman as a new crime punishable by excommunication. But then, these are revisions to legislation dealing with sacramental crimes, not civil ones, and are therefore in the same legal (but obviously not moral) category.
And this point underlines what these revisions are not. They do not amount to an extension to Catholic dioceses worldwide of the US/UK model of child protection, which demands that bishops immediately refer allegations to civil authorities. The canonical norms make clear that the local law must always be followed; but it falls to the local Church to issue its own norms, depending on the civil law in each case. The informal guidelines which the Vatican drew attention to in April do make clear that "civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed", but this is not church law, meaning that bishops who have been guilty of covering up abuse cannot be brought to book by the Vatican.
But the changes to canonical rules announced today do turn into universal church law a number of procedures previously only allowed in exceptional cases, such as fast-track laicisation of abusive priests. The most important element in the announcement is in this further streamlining of procedures, so that victims will not have to watch in frustration while the priest who abused them remains in the priesthood. Even when -as mostly occurs -- the priest is removed from active ministry, the fact that they remain priests has been seen as a failure to correct the scandal.
The new measures demonstrate, said Mgr Charles Scicluna at this morning's Rome press conference, that "we are very, very serious in our commitment to promote safe environments and to offer an adequate response to abuse," adding: "If more changes are needed, they will be made."
There was little in the new norms themselves to indicate that the Vatican is choosing to exert more pressure on bishops who prefer not to act on allegations. The 2001 Norms -- the last time the canonical procedures on abuse were tightened up -- made clear that bishops were to refer cases to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith for advice on how to proceed. Article 16 reads: "Whenever the Ordinary or Hierarch receives a report of a more grave delict, which has at least the semblance of truth, once the preliminary investigation has been completed, he is to communicate the matter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which, unless it calls the case to itself due to particular circumstances, will direct the Ordinary or Hierarch how to proceed further". The new Norms make clear that "cardinals, patriarchs, legates of the Apostolic See and bishops" are subject to the jurisdiction of the CDF in respect of clerical sex abuse, which bolsters and clarifies Article 16, although it was true before the modifications.
The question is: what is the Vatican doing to put salt on the tails of those bishops' conferences which have so far failed to implement procedures for tackling clerical sex abuse? The Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, suggested this was in the pipeline. He told journalists this morning that the CDF "is considering how to assist bishops across the world on how to formulate and put in practice, coherently and effectively, the directives and guidelines necessary to confront the problem of clerical sex abuse of minors", which suggests that there is more to come from Rome on this. (But according to John Allen, the guidance "is not expected to appear soon").
Today's changes, widely trailed, do not add up to much. They either codify existing practice, or establish a right in law what the CDF has been doing for years -- the previous 10-year statute of limitations, for example, has often been set aside on a case-by-case basis.
But they amount to action, which is what Pope Benedict promised last month when he said the Church "would do everything in its power to ensure that it never happens again." Those were strong words. This is the first step towards putting them into practice.