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Vatican makes it easier to punish abusive priests

By on Thursday, 15 July 2010

Mgr Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's chief prosecutor for clerical sex abuse, left, and Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi (Photo: AP/Andrew Medichini)

Mgr Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's chief prosecutor for clerical sex abuse, left, and Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi (Photo: AP/Andrew Medichini)

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.

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 emphasised 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,” one Vatican official said.

Sexual abuse of a child 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 on May 21 and released today, 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 Fr 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 rigour and transparency.”

The norms on sexual abuse of children 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 children, 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 fourteen, 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 children. 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 children by priests, the doctrinal congregation may proceed directly to laicise 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 favour of the “extra-judicial 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 children. 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 authorises 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. Fr 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.

Fr Lombardi added that the doctrinal congregation was also 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 laicised, 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 priesthood] is an additional expiatory penalty which remains in place permanently, even if the excommunication is lifted,” one informed source 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 media of social communication. 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 the Eucharistic celebration 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.

  • Anonymous

    It is not normal for a priest or any human being to look at pornography as that is a perverted mind, there are broad minded people who don’t even think of things like that but, for the sake of humanity celibacy still should be abolished.

    The Pope for some reason insists that celibacy is a “Sign of Faith”, a “Gift from God”. I would love to know where he got that crazy idea from, for one thing, if that is the case then where on earth does the Pope and all of us come from? Incuding our parents, God marries couples in his church including Deacons to their wives so explain that one if you can Pope

  • Anonymous

    Here we go again..In the 21st Century, we’re still discussing Genesis 1:26-67 , which simply states that God created man and woman in His Image. And with all due respect to his opinion, the pope is trying to convince us that women are still the watered down variant of a male, according to St. Thomas Aquinas. Therefore, it’s a serious crime like priest’s child abuse to ordain a woman priest. The whole difference between male and female is about Sex. How come the same God, who created men and women in His Image, would despise the completion of his creation in women? There is no such validity in this argument. That’s why “Sex, the greatest damned thing?” book in Amazon.com.uk is a must read in response to this question. If the purpose of creation is to praise God, as written in the Bible,”Everything that has breath, praise the Lord”; how and why a woman is still denied the right to serve and praise God as a Servant. We’re still entangled in the empirical image of Eve as the first sinner. And the book brilliantly reminds us that Satan tempted Eve. Who is Satan? The First- Male-Rebel-Angel, who God casted out of Heaven. Besides, God used a woman, the Virgin Mary, to bear His Own Son without any man’s contribution in the process. If Salvation through Jesus-Christ came from Mary, who is still maliciously called the new Eve by the Church, for the sole purpose to continue the stigma against women, why can’t we, as Christians, respect God’s redeeming plan and achievement through women alone. As a matter of fact, before his death, Jesus highly recommended His Mother to his male Apostles, and vice versa. This was done as a showcase of mutual love and respect to the Mother wrapped in the  Woman; and  from the children to rever Motherhood and the Woman, who, against all odds, made herself the vessel of Salvation. How can Mary intercede  for us,,Catholics, to Jesus as a Mother and Woman, when we trivialize women in Church for centuries Jesus’ last words on the Cross was, “It’s finished.” Meaning by His Stripes, Jesus bore Eve and Adam’ sins and for the entire humanity. Why are we still crucifying Jesus by crucifiying women in churches?  If the Virgin Mary received Holy Orders and bore it for 9 months without any man’s contribution, apparently men are simply scared of women in clergy. Because Women ordained priests will have an Immaculate Ministry. As a matter of fact, if Jesus can forgive a bloody killer and thirsty, Saul of Tarsus, and make him His disciple as Paul, who happened to forget his gangster-murderer roots and wrote the most vicious sexism against women, the same Jesus has given nobility and dignity in women’s role in ministry. Women received the Holy Orders from the Angels at Jesus’ tomb to tell the Apostles where to meet with their Master. We must stop making women the World Forbidden Sex on google.  As a Church and Christians in the 21st Century, we should be better than Thomas Aquinas in the book “Sex, the greatest damned thing?”. It’s ALL about JESUS, not the servants.