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Doctrinal Congregation Takes Control of Priestly Pedophilia Cases

By John Thavis - Catholic News Service, December 5, 2001

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, he said.

"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 with cases.

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 study."

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 one.

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 apostolic letter.

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 Law.

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 include:

-- 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 doctrinal congregation.

-- 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, he said.

Contributing to this story was Jerry Filteau in Washington.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests