The Vatican has revised Catholic Church laws that deal specifically with the crimes of clerical sexual abuse of minors.
The revisions, announced today, are not so much a major crackdown on abusers as a streamlining of legal procedures for dealing with these cases. The Vatican hopes they will expedite legal processes in such cases.
Many of the changes had been leaked in advance, but some unexpected revisions were revealed today. The document had been in the works for some years, before the current clerical sex abuse crisis broke this year.
Changes include speeding up the laicization of priests involved in such crimes, admitting laypeople to tribunal staffs, and extending the statute of limitations from 10 to 20 years (and possibly longer). The document also introduces pedophile pornography as a grave offense, and it declares the abuse of mentally disabled people and that of minors as equally offensive.
The norms retain the confidentiality of trials to protect the dignity of victim and abuser, the Vatican said.
The norms update John Paul II’s 2001 decree “Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela.” Among other things, that document switched responsibility for sex abuse cases from Vatican departments to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal office that Pope Benedict XVI ran before he became Pope.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said during a news conference that the new norms update that decree “so as to streamline and simplify the procedures and make them more effective, and to take account of new problems.”
Father Lombardi noted that “the vast public echo” of clerical sex abuse in recent years “has attracted great attention and generated intense debate on the norms and procedures applied by the Church to judge and punish such acts.”
“It is right, then,” he continued, “that there should be complete clarity concerning the regulations currently in force in this field, and that these regulations be presented organically so as to facilitate the work of the people who deal with these matters.”
The updated norms are part of the penal code of church law, which is separate from state law, the Vatican stressed. But they are not intended to supplant reporting sex abuse by priests to the police and other civil authorities.
The document also listed the attempted ordination of a woman as a “grave crime” for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to handle.
On that issue, Msgr. Charles Scicluna, in effect the Vatican’s chief prosecutor, reminded reporters that there are two types of serious offenses: those concerning administering the sacraments and Christian morality. Ordination of women, he said, is grave on a different level. It is a crime against the Catholic faith and the sacrament of Holy Orders, while the abuse of minors is an “egregious violation of the moral law.”
Asked whether he thought the floodgates might open for further cases of clerical sex abuse, Msgr. Scicluna said he doubted the possibility. “That happened in 2003 with the historical cases in the United States,” he said.
He added: “It is very important to have a clear norm, especially when one is talking about a crime. Every person has a right to know what the law says.” He noted that the issues of pedophile pornography and mental illness are important “extensions of the law” which in sum were about “ensuring the dignity and safeguarding of these people.”
Some will argue that these norms do not go far enough and that a full overhaul of the church’s procedures is necessary, but the Vatican is hopeful that they will improve the church’s handling of these cases.
Scicluna said the norms are “an important step” that consolidates faculties, or optional rules, and makes them more binding.
But he stressed that a “document is always a document and doesn’t solve all problems.” The way you use the instruments that are available “is what will have an effect on the church,” he said.
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