Signs of the Times

Revised Norms Support KeyElements of U.S. Bishops’ Policy

Revisions to the U.S. bishops’ norms for dealing with cases of sexual abuse by clergy reflect two overriding concerns on the part of the Vatican: revulsion at clerical sexual abuse of minors and apprehension over the possibility of unfair treatment of priests. The first point explains why the Vatican ended up supporting key elements of the bishops’ strong policy against sexual abuse; the second accounts for the juridical safeguards it proposed in dealing with accused clerics.

Elaborated by a U.S.-Vatican commission and made public on Nov. 4, the revised norms contain complex provisions that cannot be characterized by slogans like “zero tolerance” and “one strike, you’re out.” But the bottom line is that the Vatican agreed priests will be permanently removed from church ministry for “even a single act” of sexual abuse and quite possibly dismissed from the clerical state—thus endorsing the main provision of the U.S. bishops’ norms. That result was especially noteworthy, because a number of Vatican officials and advisers had argued in recent months for a more tolerant approach, one that allowed for repentance and possible reassignment of priests who had abused a single time.


To the surprise of many, the revised norms also maintain a wide definition of sexual abuse that goes beyond use of force or even physical contact. Fears that this would open the door to spurious accusations apparently did not convince members of the mixed commission. Another surprise was that the U.S.-Vatican commission extended the norms to include religious priests, making it clear that religious orders are expected to follow the same rules in dealing with sexual abuse accusations.

The Vatican insisted that oversight of clerical sexual abuse cases falls to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as announced by the Vatican last year. In doing so, the Vatican not only reasserted its judicial control in these cases, but also underlined that it considers clerical sexual abuse a crime of extraordinary magnitude.

But church officials in Rome also proposed a number of checks to ensure that priests are not railroaded out of ministry or injured by unfounded accusations. The norms now explicitly state that “all appropriate steps shall be taken to protect the reputation of the accused during the investigation.” In particular, the revised norms mandate confidentiality in the investigation and church trial of an accused priest, and in the actions taken by diocesan review boards. If the procedures outlined by the Vatican last year are followed by the diocesan tribunals that will handle these cases, the entire process will be covered by “pontifical secret.”

The revised norms say a bishop can suspend an accused priest from ministry only after conducting a preliminary investigation into the accusation. While this appears to delay the bishop’s ability to remove a potentially dangerous priest from pastoral situations, Vatican experts said a preliminary investigation can be done very quickly and is mainly a matter of weeding out wild or clearly unfounded allegations. The Vatican experts also said that even as a bishop conducts the preliminary investigation he would have the authority to limit certain aspects of a priest’s pastoral activities, if warranted.

The revised norms step back from the requirement that a bishop report to civil authorities any allegation of priestly sexual abuse of anyone currently a minor; now, bishops are told to comply with reporting requirements of “applicable civil laws”—which in most cases include church authorities among mandated reporters. That change reflects the views of many at the Vatican, who have said that while bishops are not above the law, they should not be acting as voluntary reporting agents for the state.

The revised norms leave a few important questions dangling. One is the church’s statute of limitations on prosecuting clerical sexual abuse of a minor, which must begin within 10 years after the victim turns 18. The norms instruct bishops to request an exception to this rule from the Vatican for each individual case, but how often an exception will be granted remains to be seen. Another question is the “backstop” policy, under which bishops are reminded that “at all times” they have the power to remove an offending cleric from office. But church law also provides for appeals by a priest against such measures.

Several of these issues appear destined to come back to the Vatican for a ruling or clarification in appeals cases. Meanwhile, U.S. bishops will re-evaluate the norms after two years. It is likely, then, that the sexual abuse policy will be part of an ongoing conversation between the bishops and the Vatican for many years to come.

Canonists Confused by Revised Norms

Four American canonists interviewed by America said that the revised norms made significant progress in protecting the rights of accused priests, but they also felt that the norms were in places unclear and ambiguous.

The new norms call for a preliminary investigation to be “initiated and conducted promptly and objectively” before a priest is suspended. The diocesan review board will confidentially advise the bishop on his assessment of the allegations. If “sufficient evidence” is present, the bishop notifies the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which will normally direct the diocesan bishop to proceed with a trial before a diocesan tribunal unless the congregation takes the case itself. Before a priest can be dismissed from the clerical state, he has a right to a trial before a church tribunal.

From the time the bishop determines that there is “sufficient evidence” to proceed, the priest will be suspended from ministry until his case is completed. If the crime occurred outside the statute of limitations, the bishop “shall apply to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a derogation from the prescription”—that is, for a dispensation from the statute of limitations.

When asked what discretion a bishop has in dealing with a priest who admitted to abusing a minor years ago (beyond the statute of limitations) but has been good ever since, the canonists gave contradictory responses. “Rome wants the ‘prescription’ [statute of limitations] to be operative, which is much the same as full pardon,” said one canon lawyer. “It allows, however, the bishop to petition for an exception if there are good pastoral reasons for it. He is not bound to do so.” Another noted that the norms say the bishop “shall” apply for a dispensation of the statute of limitations, leaving no discretion to the bishop.

“What is interesting to me is that the statute of limitations is no longer an automatic bar to a case proceeding,” as is normal in canon law, observed a priest who has closely followed the discussions. “The C.D.F. will consider a derogation from it, with the bishop indicating ‘appropriate pastoral reasons.’” Only time will tell what criteria the Vatican will use in granting dispensations.

The canonists were also confused by Norm 9, which is being referred to as the backstop administrative procedure by which “At all times, the diocesan bishop/eparch has the executive power of governance, through an administrative act, to remove an offending cleric from office, to remove or restrict his faculties, and to limit his exercise of priestly ministry.” While “observing the provisions of canon law,” the bishop “shall exercise this power of governance to ensure that any priest who has committed even one act of sexual abuse of a minor as described above shall not continue in active ministry.”

Is this a sweeping grant of authority or simply an acknowledgement of existing law? “Is the purpose of the norm to achieve administratively a goal which could not be attained judicially?” asked one canon lawyer. Under canon law, a bishop cannot permanently suspend a priest by an administrative act. The norm is further confused (or clarified) by language in a footnote saying that the bishop “may strongly urge the priest not” to celebrate the Eucharist or sacraments in public. “Strongly urge” is a long way from ordering a priest out of active ministry.

After acknowledging the lack of clarity in the revised norms, another canonist recalled the hermeneutical principle to be used in interpretating penal matters in canon law. “Technically you must resolve all the doubts (definition of crime, prosecution, penalties, etc.) on the benign side—that is in favor of the accused. Of course, when this rule was invented, they had not thought of the overriding need to protect children.”

Canon lawyers also wondered how prepared diocesan tribunals were to handle these cases, considering that they normally deal only with annulments. None of the lawyers interviewed knew of a sexual abuse case that had been handled by a diocesan tribunal. How many cases there will be is unknown. One observer noted, “A judicial process has not been needed in many cases in the past because the priest has voluntarily left ministry. This trend may continue, which will also lessen the need for judicial processes.” Some, including Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, have suggested establishing special regional tribunals with specially trained canonists to handle these cases.

Lay groups and victims’ groups, on the other hand, complained that the process still remains totally controlled by the bishops, without any decisive participation by lay people. Some criticized a return to secrecy in dealing with these cases. In the original norms, the recommendations of the diocesan review board to the bishop would also be given to the victim and the accused. In the revised norms, the recommendations are confidential and for the bishop alone.

Finally, the revised norms still do not consider the possibility that a bishop might be “pastorally and canonically negligent in failing to address allegations of sexual misconduct,” said the Rev. Thomas Green, a professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America. “Even if bishops currently can be punished only by the pope, there should be some reference to this issue of episcopal accountability, given its significance in the present crisis.”

Bishops Defend Revised Norms

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said on Nov. 1 that the Vatican “did not reject or even ‘soften’” the U.S. bishops’ proposed norms for dealing with sexual abuse allegations against priests. The result of the mixed commission meeting of Vatican and U.S. church officials in Rome “substantially confirms the decisions made at the June general meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops,” Bishop Gregory said.

Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, the ranking American on the mixed commission, said upon his return to Chicago on Oct. 31 that in fact Vatican officials made an “enormous concession” to the U.S. bishops’ concerns when they agreed to the possibility of suspending the church’s statute of limitations for trying crimes on a case-by-case basis. The statute prohibits trying a cleric for the crime of sexual abuse of a minor if more than 10 years have passed since the victim of the alleged crime turned 18. Its suspension would permit trials to go forward when deemed necessary, even in cases where the victims are now well past the age of 28.

Vatican Document Being Prepared on Ordaining Gays

The Vatican press office confirmed that the Vatican is preparing a document on the admission of homosexual candidates to the priesthood. The document is in the early stages of preparation and is not expected to be published before the end of the year, a press office official said on Nov. 5. The document is expected to look at other issues regarding admission to the priesthood besides homosexuality, the official said.

Catholic News Service, citing informed sources, reported on Oct. 8 that the Vatican had prepared a draft document containing directives against the admission of homosexuals to the priesthood. At that time, sources told CNS that the draft document maintained that since the church considers the homosexual orientation as “objectively disordered,” such people should not be admitted to the seminary or ordained. The question of excluding homosexuals from the priesthood had been quietly considered at the Vatican for years without finding a consensus, according to some sources. Other sources say that there is agreement within the Vatican against admitting homosexual men to seminaries, but that there is opposition to the document from diocesan bishops.

The Congregation for Catholic Education prepared the draft document in collaboration with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and other Vatican agencies, the sources said. The draft was reportedly being circulated for comment in October among a wide range of consultants, including theologians, canon lawyers and other experts.

News Briefs

• The Guatemalan bishops have urged judicial officials to continue with an independent investigation of the 1998 murder of Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera of Guatemala City, saying “powerful groups” are trying to cover up the crime.

• The Chilean bishops are planning to draft a national policy on clergy sexual abuse of minors after discussing the topic with Vatican officials, said Bishop Manuel Vial Risopatron of Temuco, general secretary of the Chilean bishops’ conference. A key issue will be finding a formula for “zero tolerance” for offenders, he said.

• Saying decisions he made on sexually abusive priests “led to intense suffering,” Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston on Nov. 3 publicly asked the victims of those priests to forgive him. Earlier he met privately with a large group of abuse victims and their supporters.

• The owner of the burial box, or ossuary, linked to the “brother of Jesus” [see article in this issue] was called in for questioning by Israeli police several hours before the announcement of the existence of the box was made Oct. 21. According to the Nov. 4 issue of the English language daily newspaper Ha’aretz, the owner, Oded Golan, is a Tel Aviv engineer. Investigators at the Israeli Antiquities Authority suspect that he acquired the 2,000-year-old artifact illegally. According to the 1978 Israeli Antiquities Law, any artifact “discovered or found” in Israel after 1978 is state property.

• The influential journal La Civiltà Cattolica rejected the idea of a “preventative war” by the United States against Iraq, saying it would be an illegitimate and counterproductive use of force. The Vatican’s Secretariat of State reviews the content of the Jesuit biweekly prior to publication, and the magazine’s positions are believed to reflect Vatican thinking.

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11 years 11 months ago
I could not help reacting to the bishops’ updated statement on domestic violence as another case of episcopal “me-tooism” of agendas set by the politically correct secular culture (11/18). Are the clergy and laity of our country really insensitive to domestic abuse; guilty of counseling spouses to remain in abusive marriages; or encouraging the abuse of women?

Unfortunately there is a secular feminist ideology attached to the issue of abuse that seeks to co-opt the issue to serve an ideology that is anti-male and responsible for questionable statistics on the frequency of abuse, like the famous or infamous abuse/Super Bowl connection. This ideology is anti-male, so that any manifestation of competition or anger on the part of males becomes a harbinger of abuse toward women. This ideology is often uncritically accepted as the context of this type of church statement.

The anti-male aspects of the ideology are ignored by the bishops. Men increasingly distance themselves from church as something feminist-dominated and hostile to male concerns.

Much more urgent was an investigation and statement by our bishops on the connection between dissent from the church’s teachings on sexuality and the clerical sex scandals. This they declined to do.


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