As has been anticipated for months, and as we predicted in our book "Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis," in coming weeks the Holy See is planning to issue an update to the 2001 norms for how cases involving sexual abuse of minors by priests are to be handled.
What to expect? Basically a codification of current policy and practice to make the lessons learned from handling the flood of cases originating in the United States available to Church leaders in other parts of the world.
As the respected John Thavis, Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service, reports, there are three main emphases:
The revisions were expected to extend the Church law's statute of limitations on accusations of sexual abuse, 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.
The revisions also make it clear that use of child pornography would fall under the category of clerical sexual abuse of minors. In 2009, the Vatican determined that any instance of a priest downloading child pornography from the Internet would be a form of serious abuse that a bishop must report to the doctrinal congregation, which oversees cases of sexual abuse.
In addition, the revisions will make clear that abuse of mentally disabled adults will be considered equivalent to abuse of minors. In the law on the sexual abuse of minors, the term "minors" will include "persons of who suffer from permanent mental disability," sources said.
Thavis also reports that the new norms will add the attempted ordination of women to the list of the most serious offenses in the Church; in 2001, sexual abuse of children by priests was added to the list. This is already prompting a predictable firestorm of criticism for appearing to equate the gravity of abusing children with simulating an ordination. In the mind of an ecclesiologist, it probably is as or even more serious a wound to the Church; but anyone who takes public relations to heart must be cringing.
There's also some criticism in advance that the new norms are deficient because they apparently are silent on penalties for bishops who mishandled abuse cases.
On another sensitive point, the revisions are expected to follow the set of guidelines issued in April that reiterated that Church officials should always follow civil law in the reporting of crimes of sexual abuse of a minor to proper authorities.