Signs of the Times

Vatican Names Commission to Revise Sexual Abuse Norms

The Vatican announced the names of the members of a new joint commission set up to study and revise some elements of the U.S. bishops’ sexual abuse norms. The U.S. commission members include Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago and three other prelates who have played key roles in the U.S. bishops’ response to sexual abuse. They have all expressed confidence that the commission will endorse the substance of the abuse policy. The Vatican called for the commission on Oct. 18, saying it was concerned that “ambiguity and confusion” could arise when the norms are applied because some provisions are “difficult to reconcile with the universal law of the church.”

In a statement on Oct. 23, the Vatican named the commission members from Holy See offices:


• Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy. At a press conference in March, he said the sexual abuse problem had developed in a culture of “pan-sexuality and sexual licentiousness.” He implied that it was confined largely to English-speaking countries, that money was a factor in the cases coming to light, and that priests were being unfairly singled out.

• Archbishop Julián Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. He has criticized requiring bishops to report all abuse accusations to civil authorities and turn over relevant documents.

• Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He has said, “Persons with a homosexual inclination should not be admitted to the seminary.”

• Archbishop Francesco Monterisi, secretary of the Congregation for Bishops. Earlier he had been nuncio to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Vatican statement also announced the names of the U.S. members of the commission:

• Cardinal George.

• Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco.

• Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill.

• Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn.

Cardinal George has been quoted as saying the Vatican’s decision to set up the commission does not imply a rejection of the norms, but that Rome officials want “to talk to us about clarifying a few of the details.... What we have is an acceptance with a few qualifications.”

Bishop Doran has a doctorate in canon law, worked eight years for the Vatican’s Roman Rota tribunal and is a member of the Vatican’s highest court, the Apostolic Signatura. He is also chairman-elect of the U.S. bishops’ canonical affairs committee. According to media reports, he has said he is confident that the commission’s work will lead to Vatican approval of “the substance of what we bishops intended when we drafted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and related norms.”

Bishop Lori, who holds a doctorate in theology, is a member of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, and as such, is one of the authors of the bishops’ new sexual abuse policy. In a statement on Oct. 20, he said the bishops’ charter should “be seen as a work in progress” that will be strengthened by the commission’s work.

When the Vatican announced in the previous week that the joint commission would be formed, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the commission hoped to finish its work in time for the plenary meeting of U.S. bishops on Nov. 11-14 in Washington, D.C. “We’re dealing with a basically sound document that needs modification rather than recasting,” Bishop Gregory told reporters at a press conference in Rome. He said the commission would be “fine-tuning” the norms, and that the Vatican had not categorically rejected any element of the bishops’ sexual abuse plan.

Commission on Sexual Abuse Norms Reflects Compromise

The creation of a U.S.-Vatican commission to revise the U.S. bishops’ sexual abuse norms reflected a compromise between Vatican officials who wanted to reject the norms outright and others who favored an experimental implementation, according to John Thavis, the Catholic News Service bureau chief in Rome. By creating an additional step, the Vatican gave everyone more time to study the details—and offered the bishops another chance to win the Vatican’s blessing.

While the questions to be examined are not minor ones, Vatican officials supported the optimistic prediction by U.S. church leaders that fine-tuning on the norms could be finished by mid-November. “I’m certain an agreement will be reached, maybe even before November. It’s a question of improving the language, not rewriting the policy,” one senior Vatican official said on Oct. 21. The official said it was wrong to interpret the Vatican’s uneasiness with some of the norms as censure. “Just because they said some language was ambiguous doesn’t necessarily mean they considered it awful,” the official said.

The norms and charter outlining strict procedures and penalties for clerical sexual abusers were adopted by the U.S. bishops in June. Vatican approval, or recognitio, would make them binding in all U.S. dioceses. Almost immediately after the bishops presented the norms, however, experts at the Vatican found fault with some points. They questioned the policy’s wide definition of sexual abuse, the lack of a statute of limitations, the role of lay review boards and the harshness of penalties imposed, including automatic removal from priestly ministry.

Yet even with those misgivings, some of the Vatican’s top officials were prepared to allow the norms to be implemented on an experimental basis, with a joint review after a year or two of experience. “The thinking was: is this what you bishops wanted? Fine, try it for a few years. But in the meantime Rome will be watching. And if there is an avalanche of appeals by priests, that will have to be taken into consideration,” said one source in a Vatican congregation. Reportedly backed by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation for Bishops, this idea of conditional approval was referred to internally as the “Italian solution,” reflecting that country’s traditional skill at finding the middle ground.

But that approach eventually was rejected, mainly because it was seen as postponing an inevitable reckoning on important points of church law. “In the end, people here said: if we know what the problems are, why should we put off facing them for a year or two? Why not do it now?” said one Vatican official.

In one sense, the official said, the joint commission underlines Rome’s wish to work in hand in hand with the U.S. bishops on this issue—even if it takes a while to nail down the details. The question now is, how deep will the revisions cut? If it is a matter of adding a statute of limitations, tightening up the definition of sexual abuse and clarifying the language on review boards, the bishops could emerge with the key elements of their policy still intact. But if the Vatican wants to change the basic thrust of the policy—which foresees permanent removal from priestly ministry for a single act of abuse against a minor—then the bishops will have some tough explaining to do to the Catholic faithful in the United States.

One of the more subtle questions the commission will face is how to harmonize the U.S. bishops’ policy with elements of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter in 2001 on the same problem. The pope’s letter reserved to the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation oversight of all cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests. The doctrinal congregation in turn set up distinct procedures for bishops to follow, favoring church-conducted trials over administrative shortcuts in dealing with offenders. But the papal letter has not been implemented to any significant degree in the United States. For months, Vatican and U.S. church officials said the question of its application to U.S. cases was still being studied, because U.S. bishops had previously been given special exemptions from church law on such cases.

After the sexual abuse scandal mushroomed in the United States, the bishops came up with their own new policy, which adopted some stricter penalties but without the emphasis on the church-run trials foreseen by the Vatican. As a result, some at the Vatican remain troubled that so soon after the pope moved to centralize the handling of priestly sexual abuse cases, the U.S. bishops went in a somewhat different direction.

The pope’s own role in all this has confirmed a hallmark of his governing style: a willingness to delegate important tasks to trusted subordinates. Vatican sources said the pope was “kept informed” about the Vatican’s delicate discussions on the U.S. bishops’ norms this fall, but was not directly involved in the review process.

When top officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met with the pontiff on Oct. 17, they did not discuss the norms with him in any detail. Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., conference president, told reporters he assumed the pope had great confidence in the curial officials who handled the issue. Bishop Gregory also seemed to go out of his way to praise curial officials for their “profound pastoral sensitivity,” their “exceptional spirit of fraternity” and their willingness to help the U.S. bishops.

News Briefs

• With shouts of “Too late!” Cardinal Desmond Connell of Dublin was shouted down on Oct. 19 after Mass while repeating remarks contained in a letter of apology released earlier to victims of sexual abuse by clergy.

• Bureaucracy at the Vatican has impeded relations with the Orthodox Church, said Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of Lviv, Ukraine. “As much as there has to be a final authority with the power to determine and decide, so much does Vatican bureaucracy pose a barrier to ecumenical dialogue. I think we lack the courage to say this truth clearly—that the pope must be distinguished from the Curia,” the cardinal said in a talk in Poland in mid-October.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

In 1983, Sri Lanka descended into a bitter and prolonged ethnic conflict. Harry Miller, S.J., then almost 60, was thrust into a new role as witness, advocate, intermediary and protector not only for his students but for anyone in Batticaloa who sought his help.
Jeannine GuthrieJanuary 17, 2019
I have found that praying 15 minutes every day is an important form of self-care.
Michael R. Lovell January 16, 2019
Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, Washington's retired archbishop, apologized Jan. 15 for what he called a "lapse of memory," clarifying that he knew of at least one abuse allegation against former U.S. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, but he had "forgotten" about it.
Pope Francis meets with the leadership of the Chilean bishops' conference at the Vatican on Jan. 14 to talk about the sex abuse crisis affecting the church in Chile. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
The pope wants the February summit “to be an assembly of pastors, not an academic conference—a meeting characterized by prayer and discernment, a catechetical and working gathering.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 16, 2019