Vatican strengthens clerical sex abuse procedures

Among the 17 modifications to its canonical norms dealing with "grave crimes" (gravioribus delictis) against the sacraments announced today, the Vatican has extended the time allowed for a case against a priest for sexual abuse from 10 to 20 years from a victim's 18th birthday and has speeded the processes for expelling guilty clergy from the priesthood. The new norms make illegal the use of child pornography and treat the abuse of disabled people as equivalent to that of minors.

In PR terms, it is unfortunate that these attempts to tighten church procedures against clerical sex abuse are lumped in with other norms, including the attempted ordination of a woman as a new crime punishable by excommunication. But then, these are revisions to legislation dealing with sacramental crimes, not civil ones, and are therefore in the same legal (but obviously not moral) category.


And this point underlines what these revisions are not. They do not amount to an extension to Catholic dioceses worldwide of the US/UK model of child protection, which demands that bishops immediately refer allegations to civil authorities. The canonical norms make clear that the local law must always be followed; but it falls to the local Church to issue its own norms, depending on the civil law in each case. The informal guidelines which the Vatican drew attention to in April do make clear that "civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed", but this is not church law, meaning that bishops who have been guilty of covering up abuse cannot be brought to book by the Vatican.

But the changes to canonical rules announced today do turn into universal church law a number of procedures previously only allowed in exceptional cases, such as fast-track laicisation of abusive priests. The most important element in the announcement is in this further streamlining of procedures, so that victims will not have to watch in frustration  while the priest who abused them remains in the priesthood. Even when -as mostly occurs -- the priest is removed from active ministry, the fact that they remain priests has been seen as a failure to correct the scandal. 

The new measures demonstrate, said Mgr Charles Scicluna at this morning's Rome press conference, that "we are very, very serious in our commitment to promote safe environments and to offer an adequate response to abuse," adding: "If more changes are needed, they will be made."

There was little in the new norms themselves to indicate that the Vatican is choosing to exert more pressure on bishops who prefer not to act on allegations. The 2001 Norms  -- the last time the canonical procedures on abuse were tightened up -- made clear that bishops were to refer cases to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith for advice on how to proceed. Article 16 reads: "Whenever the Ordinary or Hierarch receives a report of a more grave delict, which has at least the semblance of truth, once the preliminary investigation has been completed, he is to communicate the matter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which, unless it calls the case to itself due to particular circumstances, will direct the Ordinary or Hierarch how to proceed further". The new Norms make clear that "cardinals, patriarchs, legates of the Apostolic See and bishops" are subject to the jurisdiction of the CDF in respect of clerical sex abuse, which bolsters and clarifies Article 16, although it was true before the modifications. 

The question is: what is the Vatican doing to put salt on the tails of those bishops' conferences which have so far failed to implement procedures for tackling clerical sex abuse? The Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, suggested this was in the pipeline. He told journalists this morning that the CDF "is considering how to assist bishops across the world on how to formulate and put in practice, coherently and effectively, the directives and guidelines necessary to confront the problem of clerical sex abuse of minors", which suggests that there is more to come from Rome on this. (But according to John Allen, the guidance "is not expected to appear soon").

Today's changes, widely trailed, do not add up to much. They either codify existing practice, or establish a right in law what the CDF has been doing for years -- the previous 10-year statute of limitations, for example, has often been set aside on a case-by-case basis. 

But they amount to action, which is what Pope Benedict promised last month when he said the Church "would do everything in its power to ensure that it never happens again." Those were strong words. This is the first step towards putting them into practice.

Austen Ivereigh


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Robert Hartley
8 years 6 months ago
Once again, the Vatican led by B16, has shown itself to have mastered the fine art of "rearranging the deck chairs on Peter's Bark."
Robert Mahoney
8 years 6 months ago
Although we would like to see more attention to due process rather than rush to judgment, we are saddened by the apparent (and innacurate) dismissal of all official church efforts to deal with this troubling scandal.

Fact:  (See the John Jay report):  While atrocious, troubling and profoundly scandalous, over 90 % of U.S. priest have NOT been involved in the scandal.

Fact:  The brief mention of the USA/UK approach to the scandal seems all too typical.  What has been accomplished and is underway in education and policy is truly remarkable and inspiring in these two very large sections of the church.  Yet there seems to be a public relations failure to inform the public adequately about what has been accomplished in the USA/UK, as illustrated by the perspective of some "informed" news outlets...e.g., the sloppy and seemingly ill-informed hatchet job that was a recent Time cover "STORY." 
8 years 6 months ago
See this most recent Vatican statement for what it is.
Little more than another public relations ploy.
By including the ordination of women as a most serious crime in the same breath as the sexual abuse of children, whether by priests, deacons, seminarians, nuns or lay church employees, the aim is to deflect attention from the church's continuing sexual abuse problems world wide.
Individuals' attention and comments will then be addressing women's ordination and not the REAL CRIMINAL actions and IMMORAL behavior of thousands of sexually predatory individuals and the many complicit bishops who enabled and covered it up for years, decades, and yes, centuries.
A stronger case for the United States and countries around the world to completely remove all criminal and civil statutes of limitation regarding the sexual abuse of children is hard to make after reading the Vatican's statement on revising church law.
How many documents and how many sets of revisions are needed to do the right thing? Years, decades, centuries?
Was not the Holy See an original signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child?
Does not the Holy See already have a stated position and a number of committees set up opposing the Trafficking in Individuals for Purposes of Sexual Exploitation?
If one has taken a child abroad to Fatima or Rome, Switzerland or Austria, across the street to the rectory or on a camping trip across state lines for purposes of sexual exploitation, strictly speaking it is TRAFFICKING. Jesuit Fr. Donald J. McGuire, a spiritual advisor to Mother Teresa, was convicted of trafficking.
What has been sorely missing has been the application of, the compliance with the criminal and civil laws that have existed for decades, for centuries as far as Church law is concerned as well as national and international trafficking laws.
Events around the world contiue to document in the most outrageous manner that it is society's responsibility to protect the common good, especially in the area of the prevention of the sexual abuse of children.
History has shown time and time again, not just over decades but over centuries, that faith cannot be put in any religious denomination, whether large or small, to be fully accountable or transparent when their own self interests are concerned.
They must be held accountable to the laws that protect children and sanctioned when they ignore those laws and put children at risk.
While promises of Accountability and Transparency were made by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, bishops and Catholic Conferences have viciously opposed any statute of limitation reform in every state where such legislation has been proposed.
In the state of Delaware the hollowness of those promises is seen in the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing on the very eve of going to trial in the case of the Reverend Frank DeLuca, the DeLuca 8 trial.
While the Vatican once again revises church law, dioceses around the world try to escape the accountability and transparency promised. Why even the U.S. norms are not applicable to bishops but only to priests.
In the United States while a number of episcopal figures have made deals with civil authorities to escape civil prosecution for their enabling, protecting and covering up for individuals who have sexually abuse children, none have been held criminally or civilly responsible for such failures to protect children - yet.
There should be no accomodation in law that gives more protection to sexual predators or individuals or institutions who enable and protect them than to victims of childhood sexual abuse.
The state of Delaware now has no criminal or civil statutes of limitation going forward regarding the sexual abuse of children by anyone. It included a two year civil window in its 2007 Child Victims' Law to allow previously time barred cases of childhood sexual abuse to be brought forward.
Child Victims Voice Coalition -
Delaware also passed a law requiring a registry for those held civilly responsible in cases of childhood sexual abuse.
Every other state whose statutes need to be brought into the 21st century can do the same thing.
Professor Marci Hamilton and Sister Maureen Paul Turlish on NPR's Radio Times on WHYY in Philadelphia, April 12, 2010
Sister Maureen Paul Turlish
Victims' Advocate
New Castle, Delaware


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