Using a new set of norms, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has taken juridical control over cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests, classifying it as one of several graver offenses against church law. The move represents a Vatican effort to centralize procedure and oversight of such sexual abuse cases, said canon law experts in Rome. The norms, outlined in a letter to the world’s bishops, affect how church law treats such cases. The typical punishment for those convicted is dismissal from the clerical state. Civil law deals with the crime separately.
The new norms require local bishops to report probable cases of clerical sexual abuse against minors to the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The congregation then either could allow a local diocesan tribunal to handle the case under the congregation’s procedural rules or intervene and take up the case immediately in its own tribunal. The congregation also said that for priestly sexual abuse cases involving minors, its tribunal is the first court of appeals for the diocesan tribunal.
It was not immediately clear how the norms would affect such cases in the United States, since U.S. bishops are operating under modified church law approved by the Vatican in 1994. The U.S. norms, for example, referred to the Roman Rota as the court of appeals. A Vatican official said the question needs further study.
Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the doctrinal congregation, said in an interview on Dec. 4 that the new norms promote the judicial process as the normal way to handle clerical sexual abuse cases against minors. They do, however, leave open the possibility of nontrial solutions when the accuser, accused and local bishop are in agreement and the facts are uncontested, he said. The judicial process protects the rights of the victims who have suffered harm, the rights of the church and ecclesial community which have suffered scandal and damage, and the rights of defense of those accused, he said.
The C.D.F.’s Latin-language letter was dated May 18, 2001, and was sent in June to bishops and heads of religious orders, but as of early December it had not been published by the Vatican. Catholic News Service obtained a translated copy of the doctrinal congregation’s letter and interviewed church law experts familiar with the new norms.
The new norms set the statute of limitations for sexual abuse of minors at 10 years, a period that begins after an alleged victim of such abuse has reached his or her 18th birthday. The new norms (like the American norms) consider a minor to be anyone under the age of 18a wider definition than in the Code of Canon Law, where minors are below the age of 16.
The letter said the new norms reflected the C.D.F.’s traditional exclusive competence regarding delicta gravioraLatin for graver offenses. According to canon law experts in Rome, reserving cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors to the C.D.F. is something new. In past eras, some serious crimes by priests against sexual morality, including pedophilia, were handled by that congregation or its predecessor, the Holy Office, but this has not been true in recent years.
One well-informed scholar in Rome, who asked not to be named, said the new norms reflect the Vatican’s desire to intervene in a delicate area that has caused dioceses scandal and financial harm. He said that in dealing with priests accused of sexual abuse, some dioceses have lamented that they do not have the legal resources to conduct a church trial. The Holy See is now taking it unto itself. Misbehaving clerics are going to be held accountable, and this should be a source of reassurance to the faithful, he said.
Archbishop Bertone said the new norms do not preclude bishops from temporarily suspending accused priests from their ministry while an investigation proceedsas long as this was seen as a temporary and cautionary punishment and not as a permanent one. It was not clear how the new norms would affect efforts by some other bishops’ conferences to create nonjudicial ways of dismissing priests who face serious accusations of sexual abusea route the Vatican has resisted.
One bishop who is well informed on the issue and asked not to be named said the secrecy demanded by the new norms gives the appearance of a cover-up by the church. He said the norms were too legalistic and ignored the pastoral needs raised by pedophilia cases. He questioned whether victims would find an all-priest tribunal an acceptable forum. Those close to the Vatican in Rome, however, said the new norms do not rule out pastoral initiatives by bishops, and they defended secrecy in such cases, saying it was needed to protect the accuser and the accused.
The C.D.F. said it had carried out consultations before submitting its norms to the pope for approval. But the inclusion of cases of sexual abuse of minors apparently came as a surprise to many even inside the Vatican and to bishops who had been working with the Congregation for Clergy for more than a year on devising new approaches to such cases. Even in Rome, few experts said they have seen the document. On Dec. 3, for example, a high official of the Congregation for Clergy said he had not yet been able to obtain a copy of the apostolic letter.
The norms stipulate that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will act as a tribunal, but in view of the workload, it also foresees the nomination of permanent or deputy judges outside the congregation’s membership.
The other offenses reserved to the doctrinal congregation include:
Sacrilegious acts involving the Eucharist.
Forbidden concelebration of the Eucharist with non-Catholic ministers who do not have apostolic succession and do not recognize the sacramental dignity of priestly ordination. This is a new offense among those traditionally reserved to the doctrinal congregation.
Acts against the sacrament of penance, such as inducing a penitent to commit sexual acts with the priest or violation of the sacramental seal.
The priest-pedophilia issue has long been a matter of debate between the bishops and church law experts at the Vatican. In resisting some bishops’ suggestion of extraordinary administrative procedures to dismiss or suspend priests more easily before a church trial has begun, the Vatican has sometimes cited the rights of the accused. It was felt that accused priests should not lose their right to due process under church law. But over recent months, according to two sources, the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments have continued to study whether some nonjudicial, briefer way might be adopted to deal with priests who cannot easily be tried in a church tribunal.
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