Vatican issues revised priest sex abuse norms

The Vatican released long-awaited updated procedures for handling clerical sex abuse cases, but sparked a firestorm in the media by adding “attempted ordination of women” to a revised list of “more grave crimes” such as pedophilia, heresy and profanation of the Eucharist. 

The new procedures, approved by Pope Benedict XVI 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. 

They also strengthen the role of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, as the primary adjudicator of the most serious crimes against the faith, sacraments and morals. 

In a Washington, D.C., press conference timed for the release, the head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Spokane, Wash., said the new norms go beyond the “Essential Norms” adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2002 by further streamlining the disciplinary process and expanding the definition of sex abuse. 

He also said that the fact that clerical sex abuse was put in the same Church-law context as offenses against the sacraments makes “it clear that such misconduct violates the core values of our faith and worship.” 

Three key changes

The norms on sexual abuse of minors by priests include three main changes. 

First, they extend Church law’s statute of limitations from 10 years after the alleged victim’s 18th birthday to 20 years. In recent years, Vatican officials regularly granted exceptions to the statute, and exceptions will continue to be possible even with the longer period. 

Second, they add the use of child pornography — defined as “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” — to the category of clerical abuse of minors. Offenders can be dismissed from the priesthood. Church law considers a child under 14 as “prepubescent.” 

Third, they also add s exual abuse of mentally disabled adults — defined as someone “who habitually lacks the use of reason ” — to the category of clerical abuse of minors. 

Pope John Paul II in 2003 tasked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with handling all cases of clerical sex abuse. The new norms expand that brief. It gives the congregation power in the most serious and clear cases of abuse to proceed directly to laicize a priest without a trial. The congregation can also authorize a local bishop to dispense with a Church trial to remove an accused priest from ministry. And the norms specify that the congregation has competence as the tribunal in cases in which the person accused of a “more grave crime” is a bishop, cardinal or patriarch. 

The norms do not address the reporting of sex abuse to civil authorities, but a Vatican spokesman said it remains the Vatican’s policy to encourage bishops to report such crimes wherever required by civil law. 

The spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, also said the Vatican was studying the possibility of a new document to help bishops formulate local guidelines on sex abuse in Church environments. That would be “another crucial step on the Church’s journey” of permanent reform and continuous awareness, he said. 

The sexual abuse of minors by priests was made a “more grave crime” against Church law in 2001. The new norms add to that list of crimes, and include violating the seal of confession with a tool of modern technology, simulated celebration of the Eucharist, and crimes against the faith like heresy, apostasy and schism. 

Most controversial, though, even for defenders of the Vatican, was the addition to that list of attempted ordination of women, although it is essentially the restating of 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 add the potential penalty of laicization if the guilty party is a priest. 

Media firestorm 

Predictably, most media saw only that the Vatican — despite explicit explanations to the contrary — appeared to be equating pedophiles with women who simulate priestly ordination. Despite it being only a small part of the new norms, it drew heavy attention; 11 of the 22 paragraphs of The New York Times online story on the norms addressed women’s ordination. 

Some Catholic bloggers wondered why the Vatican didn’t foresee how that provision would play in the press, and why it didn’t issue it in a separate press conference to keep the issues from overlapping. 

Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl tried to give context to the provision at a press briefing at the bishops’ conference, saying, “The Church’s gratitude toward women cannot be stated strongly enough.” 

“Women offer unique insight, creative abilities and unstinting generosity at the very heart of the Catholic Church,” Archbishop Wuerl said. 

But, he said, “The Catholic Church, through its long and constant teaching, holds that ordination has been, from the beginning, reserved to men, a fact which cannot be changed despite changing times.” 

John Norton is OSV editor. Reporting by Catholic News Service.

At A Glance (sidebar)

The revised Vatican norms dealing with sexual abuse of minors by priests and other “more grave crimes” against Church law contain several changes from the previous version published in 2001.

The main provisions of the revised norms: 

  •  Extend the statute of limitations from 10 to 20 years after a sex abuse victim’s 18th birthday. 
  •  Include use of child pornography as a type of sexual abuse of minors. 
  • Establish parity between abuse of mentally disabled people and that of minors. 
  •  Confirm the right of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation to ask the pope to laicize an abusive priest without a Church trial in the most serious and clear cases. 
  • Confirm that the doctrinal congregation can use an “extra-judicial” process to quickly remove an accused priest from active ministry. 
  • Confirm the practice of allowing qualified lay Catholics, and not only priests with doctorates in canon law, to serve on tribunals that deal with sex abuse cases. 
  • Confirm the doctrinal congregation’s competency to judge cardinals, patriarchs and bishops accused of “more grave crimes.” 
  •  Lists “attempted sacred ordination of a woman” among the “more grave crimes” reserved to the doctrinal congregation. 
  • Makes it a grave crime to record confessions with modern technology. — CNS