More on the New Vatican Norms

Austen Ivereigh has already weighed in (below) on the new Vatican norms on sexual abuse, pornography and the "attempted ordination of women."   This morning, in a media advisory announcing two press conferences, the USCCB summed up the two features of the revisions bound to be the topic of the most conversation: the norms on sexual abuse of minors and the ordination of women.  "The revisions codify practices that have been in place for several years for removing abusive priests from ministry. They also include sexual abuse of a mentally disabled adult and downloading child pornography in the same category as abusing a minor and extend the Vatican’s statute of limitations for sexual abuse to 20 years."  And regarding women's ordination: "The attempted ordination of a woman was already treated as a crime by a 2007 Vatican decree. The newly-released list codifies this rule as part of an update of a 2001 list of crimes to be referred to the Holy See. Pope John Paul II affirmed that the Catholic Church does not have the authority to ordain women in a 1994 apostolic letter."

A good deal of controversy has already centered around the release of norms on sexual abuse at the same time that the Vatican is codifying stronger penalities for women's ordination.  Not surprisingly, some have already expressed their anger at the seeming equivalence implied by lumping the two together in the new revisions.  Msgr. Charles Scicluna, an official at the CDF, and the Vatican's point person on sexual abuse, responded to these critiques: "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." 


Also, these are not the only categories treated in the new list: violations against the sacrament of penance and the Eucharist are also revised today.

CNS has a full report by John Thavis, their Rome correspondent, which we reproduce here in full.

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," said Msgr. Charles Scicluna, an official of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation.

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.  The latest revisions, 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.

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 rigor 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, which were already in practice:

-- In the most serious and clear cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests, the doctrinal congregation may proceed directly to laicize a priest without going through an ecclesiastical trial. In these instances, the final decision for dismissal from the clerical state and dispensation from the obligations of celibacy is made by the pope.

-- The doctrinal congregation can dispense with using the formal judicial process in church law in favor of the "extrajudicial process." In effect, this allows a bishop to remove an accused priest from ministry without going through a formal trial.

-- The doctrinal congregation can dispense from church rules requiring only priests with doctorates in canon law to serve on church tribunals in trials of priests accused of abusing minors. This means qualified lay experts, including those without a canon law doctorate, can be on the tribunal staff, or act as lawyers or prosecutors.

-- The doctrinal congregation's competency in such cases means it has the right to judge cardinals, patriarchs and bishops as well as priests. Vatican sources said this norm, which originates from a decision by Pope John Paul II in 2004, indicates that if the pope authorizes a trial or penal process against such persons for sex abuse or another of the "more grave crimes," the doctrinal congregation would be the tribunal and could also make preliminary investigations.

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. Father Lombardi said the provision on the secrecy of trials was designed "to protect the dignity of everyone involved."

The spokesman 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.

Father Lombardi added that the doctrinal congregation also was studying how to help bishops around the world formulate local guidelines on sexual abuse in church environments.  He said that would be "another crucial step on the church's journey as she translates into permanent practice and continuous awareness the fruits of the teachings and ideas that have matured over the course of the painful events of the 'crisis' engendered by sexual abuse by members of the clergy."

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.  "Excommunication is a medicinal penalty which has to be remitted once the person repents; dismissal (from the priesthois an additional expiatory penalty which remains in place permanently, even if the excommunication is lifted," Msgr. Scicluna explained.

The norms 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 social communication media. 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.

Vatican sources said the direct violation of the confessional seal would occur, for example, when a priest betrays the name of the penitent and the sin confessed; an indirect violation might occur if the priest betrays only the name of the penitent or only the confessed sin, but the missing element is understood from the context of the conversation.

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 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.  --John Thavis, CNS

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David Nickol
8 years 8 months ago
It's odd that the Vatican is more lenient about pornography than the law. Both in Italy and the United States, pornography depicting anyone under the age of 18 is legally considered child pornography. But the Vatican makes it a ''grave delict'' to view pornography depicting children under 14. 

However, I personally think that treating the viewing of child pornography with the same seriousness as the molesting of a child is odd, to say the least. Plausible arguments have been made that the availability of pornography causes sex crimes to decrease. Whether or not that is true, it still seems to me that to treat looking at sexual photos of a child with the same severity as molesting a child implies that it is not the victimizing of children that is so objectionable, but rather the sexual pleasure of the victimizer.

People are very emotional about child pornography, and one of the principal arguments for prosecuting people who view it is that real children are harmed in the making of child pornography. This is of course true, but only people who are paying for child pornography are materially cooperating with those who create child pornography and actually abuse children in the process. I think most of the downloading of pornography on the Internet, like other file sharing, is getting something for free that in the days before the internet you would have had to pay for. So when people share music on the Internet, they are seen to be hurting the music industry (and indeed they are). But when people share pornography on the Internet (and particularly child pornography) they are seen to be helping the child pornography industry and contributing to the abuse of children. 

So although it seems to make people very angry, I have to say I think it is misguided to treat priests who view child pornography the same as child abusers. 
8 years 8 months ago
The comments here and widespread criticism of a small "advance" on sex abuse handling indicate this effort by the Vatican, its curia and its canonists is a poor shot at maintaining "identity" against civil (secular?) views and deeply flawed in its credibility.
Bill Collier
8 years 8 months ago

While I agree with you that the viewing of child pornography is not the same thing as the actual physical abuse of a child, I do question a few of your other assertions.

Surely you're not saying that in the case of child pornography "[p]lausible arguments have been made that the availability of pornography causes sex crimes to decrease"? Since the depiction of sexually graphic images involving children is legally admissible evidence of child abuse, it would seem incongruous, and beyond the pale, to make child pornography available so that sex crimes against children might decrease. While there may have been studies involving adult pornography and the incidence of sex crimes, I can't imagine that society could ever condone using depictions of child abuse to curb child abuse itself. 

You also draw a distinction between payment for child pornography and acquiring it for free. The federal child exploitation laws don't draw a culpability distinction between monetary payment and, in most instances, the non-monetary distribution and/or receipt of child pornography. It is equally a violation of the law to pay for child pornography, to trade child pornography with another (e.g., by peer-to-peer file sharing), and to barter for child pornography. The act of sharing would be distribution under the law, while the act of acquiring would be receipt. In addition, it would be highly unlikely that a court would have sympathy for a defendant at sentencing who says that he or she didn't pay for the child pornography that is the basis of conviction.     
Bill Collier
8 years 8 months ago
Sorry my post at # 6 was in response to David N.'s post at # 2, not David S.'s post at # 5.
Jim McCrea
8 years 8 months ago
I find it quite interesting that a bishop who “attempts” to ordain a woman suffers automatic excommunication and may be defrocked.
OTOH, a bishop who covers up egregious, sinful and illegal abuse of children, transfers the miscreant to other opportunities of abuse, settles financially with the abused under the condition of secrecy and generally deceives the members of the church at large – well, he is subject to voluntary “fraternal correction” and, in the most heinous cases, is shipped off to a Roman sinecure to consider his sins.

Yes, I guess that is the good Catholic way alright.
Cathy Fasano
8 years 8 months ago
Norman, you seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding about what the function of canon law is.  It's not directly about the moral analysis of this or that sin, it is about the Church's reaction to sins.  We have decided that the Church is morally and financially responsible for the actions of priests.  We have decided that the Church has a moral and legal duty to prevent priests from committing certain sins, while other sins are purely the responsibility of the sinners.
And so canon law prudently carries out those duties.  All child molesters come from a particular subset of the population - the subset that finds children sexually attractive in some way.  If you are an adult who views child pornography this indicates that you are sexually attracted to children.  So the Church is simply acting prudently - if they fire the priest now, before he molests anybody, then he won't molest anybody while he's a priest and the Church won't be responsible.
Except, of course, it won't really work.  To take a made-up example:  A bishop catches a priest with child pornography, removes him from the priesthood and turns the evidence over to prosecutors.  They convict him and send him to jail.  After he is released from jail, he marries and has children.  He then molests his children's teenaged babysitters.  Of course this will be the Church's fault.
David Nickol
8 years 8 months ago

If it were the case that the availability of child pornography reduced actual child abuse, I certainly agree that the government should not distribute child pornography. However, it would be a rational approach to focus law enforcement on those who produce, sell, and buy child pornography, not on those who view or possess it. Possession would be tolerated, on somewhat the same grounds as Aquinas used for tolerating prostitution. 

You are correct that it is a crime to possess child pornography whether you bought it or got it for nothing. I am saying the law is irrational. The major justification for outlawing possession of child pornography is that if you acquire and possess it, you are supporting the people who directly harm children by creating it. You are, in effect, supporting the child pornography industry. What I am saying is that those who get it for free are, in effect, stealing from the porn industry, just as those who illegally download music from file sharing services (like the old Napster) are stealing from the music industry. No one would ever argue that those who illegally share music files on the Internet are supporting the music industry, so I don't see how an argument that those who share child pornography are supporting the porn industry.
David Cruz-Uribe
8 years 8 months ago
What was supposed to be a step in the right direction has turned into a PR disaster for the Vatican.  The NY Times report, in its opening paragraph, declares categorically that the Vatican has "equated" pedophila and women's ordination.  Some paragraphs later it quotes the Vatican spokesman denying this equation, but (based on a ferocious exchange I just had on FaceBook) a lot of people only read the first paragraph, or interpreted the whole article in light of this.    Does this reflect deliberate anti-Catholicism by the NYT, or simply a common reading by the broader world (or, if the comments on this site are any barometer, by many Catholics as well)?

The Vatican has shown itself in the past incapable of dealing with or even understanding the PR consequences of its actions.  As much as I hate "spin doctors" and their ilk, I think that it is time for the pope to hire a media relations firm that is sensitive to how things will be read. 
Molly Roach
8 years 8 months ago
For me, "sensitive to how things will be read" has its foundation in knowing who is listening.  The overwhelming majority of folks who read newspapers are not educated in theological and/or canonical distinctions and therefore, treating these two issues in the same press release looks like saying that they're equal in the eyes of the people responsible for the press release.  This goes much further than bad PR-and it most certainly that.  It is fractured communication and indicates a group of leaders who have not made it their business to become familiar with the people they are addressing.  These men are nominally teachers and shepherds. Their style of communication evokes the image of people talking into mirrors. Good luck with that.  
Jim McCrea
8 years 8 months ago
They are really Vatican "abnorms."


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