New Vatican norms strengthen efforts against abusive priests

By  John Thavis, Catholic News Service
  • July 15, 2010
Father Federico LombardiVATICAN CITY - The Vatican has revised its procedures for handling priestly sex abuse cases, streamlining disciplinary measures, extending the statute of limitations and defining child pornography as an act of sexual abuse of a minor.

Vatican officials said the changes allow the Church to deal with such abuse more rapidly and effectively, often through dismissal of the offending cleric from the priesthood.


As expected, the Vatican also updated its list of the "more grave crimes" against Church law, called "delicta graviora," including for the first time the "attempted sacred ordination of a woman." In such an act, it said, the cleric and the woman involved are automatically excommunicated, and the cleric can also be dismissed from the priesthood.

Vatican officials emphasized that simply because women's ordination was treated in the same document as priestly sex abuse did not mean the two acts were somehow equivalent in the eyes of the Church.

"There are two types of 'delicta graviora': those concerning the celebration of the sacraments, and those concerning morals. The two types are essentially different and their gravity is on different levels," one Vatican official said.

Sexual abuse of a minor by a priest was added to the classification of "delicta graviora" in 2001, and at that time the Vatican established norms to govern the handling of such cases, which were reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The norms affect how Church law treats sex abuse cases; civil law deals with the crime separately.

Toronto report to be in archbishop's hands by end of the month

Written by Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

TORONTO - The archdiocese of Toronto's review and revision of its own rules for handling sexual abuse cases is on track to report back to Archbishop Thomas Collins by July 31.

In May Collins appointed a panel of lay experts to work with the archdiocese's judicial vicar, Fr. Brian Clough, on a third revision of local rules for applying and interpreting the Church's universal canon law governing cases of sexual abuse. It is the third major review of Toronto's policies since they were introduced in 1989.

The report will come shortly after the Vatican announced revisions to its procedures for handling priestly sex abuse cases on July 15.

"This (Vatican) announcement won't significantly affect the revision of the Toronto norms," said archdiocese spokesman Neil MacCarthy. "The committee is definitely on track for July 31."

Once the archbishop receives the committee's work, meetings to reveal the new norms to Toronto clergy are scheduled for early September. The public release of new local norms will follow in about mid-September, MacCarthy told The Catholic Register in an e-mail.

Like the Vatican's new policies for serious crimes, the Toronto norms will concern only internal Church procedures. Victims are free to initiate civil lawsuits and report crimes to the police.

Toronto's review committee has seven lay experts working with Clough. They include administrator and accountant Joan Breech, clinical psychologist Dr. Philip Dodgson, education administrator John Kostoff, lawyer Hugh MacKinnon, lawyer and moral theologian Moira McQueen, expert in education Patricia Parisi, and social worker and child protection expert Janie Ryan.

The latest revisions, approved by Pope Benedict XVI on May 21 and released July 15, for the most part codify practices that have been implemented through special permissions granted over the last nine years, and make them part of universal law.

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said publication of the revisions "makes a great contribution to the clarity and certainty of law in this field, a field in which the Church is today strongly committed to proceeding with rigour and transparency."

The norms on sexual abuse of minors by priests now stipulate:

  • The Church law's statute of limitations on accusations of sexual abuse has been extended, from 10 years after the alleged victim's 18th birthday to 20 years. For several years, Vatican officials have been routinely granting exceptions to the 10-year statute of limitations. Exceptions to the 20-year limit will be possible, too, but the Vatican rejected a suggestion to do away with the statute of limitations altogether, sources said.
  • Use of child pornography now falls under the category of clerical sexual abuse of minors, and offenders can be dismissed from the priesthood. This norm applies to "the acquisition, possession or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors under the age of 14, for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology."
  • Sexual abuse of mentally disabled adults will be considered equivalent to abuse of minors. The norms define such a person as someone "who habitually lacks the use of reason."

In 2003, two years after promulgating the Vatican's norms on priestly sex abuse, Pope John Paul II gave the doctrinal congregation a number of special faculties to streamline the handling of such cases. The new revisions incorporate those changes.

The revised norms maintain the imposition of "pontifical secret" on the Church's judicial handling of priestly sex abuse and other grave crimes, which means they are dealt with in strict confidentiality. Lombardi said the provision on the secrecy of trials was designed "to protect the dignity of everyone involved." He said that while the Vatican norms do not directly address the reporting of sex abuse to civil authorities, it remains the Vatican's policy to encourage bishops to report such crimes wherever required by civil law.

"These norms are part of canon law; that is, they exclusively concern the Church. For this reason they do not deal with the subject of reporting offenders to the civil authorities. It should be noted, however, that compliance with civil law is contained in the instructions issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as part of the preliminary procedures to be followed in abuse cases," he said.

Lombardi added that the doctrinal congregation was also studying how to help bishops around the world formulate local guidelines on sexual abuse in Church environments.

The new norms treat a number of other "delicta graviora" connected with sacramental issues. On the "attempted ordination of a woman," the norms essentially restated a 2008 decree from the doctrinal congregation that said a woman who attempts to be ordained a Catholic priest and the person attempting to ordain her are automatically excommunicated.

The norms added that if the guilty party is a priest, he can be punished with dismissal from the priesthood. For those wondering why an excommunicated priest would also be laicized, Vatican sources said they were two different kinds of penalties.

The norms also address violations against the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.

One norm explicitly extends the crime of violating the seal of Confession through use of modern technology — by recording confessions or making any such recording public through media of social communication. This reflects a change introduced in practice in 2003.

The revisions include among the "more grave crimes" other actions regarding the sacrament of Penance: attempting to impart absolution or hearing sacramental confession when one cannot do so validly; indirect violation (and not only direct violation) of the seal of confession; and simulation of the administration of the sacrament by a priest who is able to grant absolution.

Regarding the Eucharist, the revised norms modify the language concerning the attempted and simulated celebration of the Eucharist, and sacrilegious consecration of one or both matters in the eucharistic celebration or outside of the eucharistic celebration.

The revised norms include for the first time "crimes against the faith" — heresy, apostasy and schism — saying that while competency normally falls to local bishops in such cases, the doctrinal congregation becomes competent in the case of an appeal.

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