Doctrinal Congregation Takes Control
of Priestly Pedophilia Cases
By John Thavis - Catholic News Service, December
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In a new set of norms, the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith has taken juridical control over cases
of sexual abuse of minors by priests, classifying it as one of several
"graver offenses" against church law.
The move represents a Vatican effort to centralize
procedure and oversight on these kinds of sexual abuse cases, said
canon law experts in Rome.
The norms, outlined in a letter to the world's bishops,
affect how church law treats such cases; the typical punishment
for those convicted is dismissal from the clerical state. Civil
law deals with the crime separately.
The new norms require local bishops to report probable
cases of clerical sexual abuse against minors to the Vatican's doctrinal
congregation, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
The doctrinal congregation then either could allow
a local diocesan tribunal to handle the case under the congregation's
procedural rules or intervene and take up the case immediately in
its own tribunal. The congregation also said that for priestly sexual
abuse cases involving minors, its tribunal is the first court of
appeals for the diocesan tribunal.
The norms impose "pontifical secret" on
such cases, which means they would be handled in strict confidentiality.
They would be tried by an all-clerical court.
It was not immediately clear how the norms would affect
such cases in the United States, since U.S. bishops are operating
under modified church law approved by the Vatican in 1994. A Vatican
official said that question needs further study.
Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the doctrinal
congregation, said in an interview Dec. 4 that the new norms promote
the judicial process as the "normal way" to handle clerical
sexual abuse cases against minors. They do, however, leave open
the possibility of nontrial solutions when the accuser, accused
and local bishop are in agreement and the facts are uncontested,
"The judicial process protects the rights of
the victims who have suffered harm, the rights of the church and
ecclesial community which have suffered scandal and damage, and
the rights of defense of those accused," he said.
The doctrinal congregation's Latin-language letter
was dated May 18, 2001, and was sent in June to bishops and heads
of religious orders. The letter said Pope John Paul II had approved
the contents and had written an apostolic letter officially promulgating
the new norms. As of early December, however, the apostolic letter
had not been published by the Vatican.
Archbishop Bertone said the papal letter eventually
would be published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, used for official
Vatican documents. He said the norms would be sent to local bishops
only on a case-by-case basis, because "thank heavens, not all
bishops have these problems."
Catholic News Service obtained a translated copy of
the doctrinal congregation's letter and interviewed church law experts
familiar with the new norms.
The norms set the statute of limitations for sexual
abuse of minors at 10 years, a period that begins after an alleged
victim of such abuse has reached his 18th birthday. That is double
the five-year statute of limitations under existing church law;
on the other hand, until now offenses reserved to the doctrinal
congregation had no expiration time.
Archbishop Bertone said the 10-year time limit could
be lengthened in the future, based on the congregation's experience
The new norms for sexual abuse consider a minor to
be anyone under the age of 18 -- a wider definition than in the
Code of Canon Law, which refers to minors below the age of 16.
The letter said the new norms reflected the doctrinal
congregation's traditional "exclusive competence" regarding
"delicta graviora" -- Latin for "graver offenses."
Eight offenses are covered by the norms: various acts committed
by priests against the sanctity of the Eucharist and against the
sacrament of penance, and sexual abuse of minors by priests.
According to canon law experts in Rome, reserving
cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors to the doctrinal congregation
is something new. In past eras, some serious crimes by priests against
sexual morality, including pedophilia, were handled by the doctrinal
congregation or its predecessor, the Holy Office, but this has not
been true in recent years.
One well-informed scholar in Rome, who asked not to
be named, said the new norms reflect the Vatican's desire to intervene
in a delicate area that has caused dioceses scandal and financial
harm. He said that in dealing with priests accused of sexual abuse,
some dioceses have lamented that they do not have the legal resources
to conduct a church trial.
"The Holy See is now taking it unto itself. Misbehaving
clerics are going to be held accountable, and this should be a source
of reassurance to the faithful," he said.
The new norms extend to the universal church two modifications
in church law obtained several years ago by U.S. bishops to deal
with such cases: the longer statute of limitations and the wider
definition of a minor. The letter granting the U.S. norms, however,
referred to the Roman Rota as the court of appeals.
Archbishop Bertone said a decision now has to be made
whether the particular law for U.S. bishops remain valid, or whether
"these norms with a universal nature would prevail. It is under
Archbishop Bertone said the new norms do not preclude
bishops from temporarily suspending accused priests from their ministry
while an investigation proceeds -- as long as this was seen as a
"temporary and cautionary punishment" and not as a permanent
It was not clear how the new norms would affect efforts
by some other bishops' conferences to create nonjudicial ways of
dismissing priests who face serious accusations of sexual abuse
-- a route the Vatican has resisted.
One bishop well-informed on the issue, who asked not
to be named, said the secrecy demanded by the new norms gives the
appearance of a "cover-up" by the church. He said the
norms were too legalistic and ignored the pastoral needs raised
by pedophilia cases. He questioned whether victims would find an
all-priest tribunal an acceptable forum.
Those close to the Vatican in Rome, however, said
the new norms do not rule out pastoral initiatives by bishops, and
they defended secrecy in such cases, saying it was needed to protect
the accuser and the accused.
The way the new norms were made known was unusual
even by Vatican standards. It reflects high Vatican sensitivity
to the issue of sexual abuse by priests.
The doctrinal congregation said it had carried out
consultations before submitting its norms to the pope for approval.
But the inclusion of cases of sexual abuse of minors apparently
came as a surprise to many even inside the Vatican and to bishops
who had been working with the Congregation for Clergy for more than
a year on devising new approaches to such cases.
Moreover, the controlling legislation appeared to
be the pope's apostolic letter, issued "motu proprio"
("on his own initiative"), and known simply by its first
words: "Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela" ("Protection
of the holiness of the sacraments.")
Yet even in Rome, few experts said they have seen
the document. On Dec. 3, for example, a high official of the Congregation
for Clergy said he had not yet been able to obtain a copy of the
According to one expert who had seen the apostolic
letter and who asked not to be named, the new norms invoke papal
authority and are said to take precedence over the Code of Canon
They stipulate that since the doctrinal congregation
will act as a tribunal, its members are the judges. But given the
workload, it also foresees the nomination of permanent or deputy
judges outside the congregation's membership.
Among those making up the congregation's tribunal
are the promoter of justice, notaries, chancellors, lawyers and
procurators, all of whom must be priests. Archbishop Bertone said,
however, that the all-clerical nature of the tribunal was a sensitive
one and could be reviewed in the future.
The norms list the "graver offenses" and
establish the procedural relationship that should exist between
local bishops and the doctrinal congregation.
The other offenses reserved to the doctrinal congregation
-- Sacrilegious acts involving the Eucharist.
-- Forbidden concelebration of the Eucharist with
non-Catholic ministers who do not have apostolic succession and
do not recognize the sacramental dignity of priestly ordination.
This is a new offense among those traditionally reserved to the
-- Acts against the sacrament of penance, such as
inducing a penitent to commit sexual acts with the priest or violation
of the sacramental seal.
The priest-pedophilia issue has long been a matter
of debate between bishops and church law experts at the Vatican.
In resisting some bishops' suggestion of extraordinary
administrative procedures to more easily dismiss or suspend priests
before a church trial has begun, the Vatican has sometimes cited
the rights of the accused. It was felt that accused priests should
not lose their right to due process under church law.
But over recent months, according to two sources,
the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy and Congregation for Divine
Worship and the Sacraments have continued to study whether some
nonjudicial, briefer way might be adopted to deal with priests who
cannot easily be tried in a church tribunal.
One canon law expert said he hoped the Vatican would
buttress the new judicial process for priestly sex abuse cases with
other approaches that rely less on proving culpability. He noted
that many view pedophilia -- sexual attraction of an adult to a
pre-adolescent child -- as a sickness, which would reduce the culpability
of the offender.
He said one possible solution that has been successfully
applied in 10 to 15 recent cases is that of a "rescript,"
or request for laicization. Church law allows a rescript to be requested
by the priest or by others, even against the priest's will.
Where pedophilia has been acknowledged as a sickness,
such a request for laicization could be handled by the Vatican's
sacraments congregation, without a need to prove it as a crime,
Contributing to this story was Jerry Filteau in