The Vatican today published revised canonical norms that deal with the crimes of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy.

Many of the innovations had already been made known through various unofficial Vatican sources, but some unexpected revisions were revealed today, all of which are aimed at speeding up legal processes and making them more efficient.

These include making it easier to laicize priests found guilty of such crimes, admitting lay people onto tribunal staff and extending the statute of limitations from 10 to 20 years (and possibly longer). The document also introduces paedophile pornography as a delicta graviora, and it establishes parity between the abuse of mentally disabled people and that of minors. Ordaining women is also a grave offense, although on a different level to clerical sex abuse.

The Vatican said the norm concerning the secrecy of trials is maintained in order to protect the dignity of everyone involved.

The norms update John Paul II’s 2001 Motu proprio “Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela” which concern the norms de gravioribus delictis reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

At a press conference this afternoon, Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said that over the nine years since the motu proprio, “experience has naturally suggested that these Norms be integrated and updated, so as to streamline and simplify the procedures and make them more effective, and to take account of new problems.

“This has been achieved principally by the Pope attributing new “faculties” to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; faculties which, however, were not organically integrated into the initial Norms. This has now come about, within the context of a systematic revision of those Norms.”

Fr. Lombardi noted “the vast public echo” of clerical sex abuse over recent years “which 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 following are some of the main novelties introduced with respect to the earlier norms:

1) The possibility of not following the “judicial process” but proceeding by “extrajudicial decree”, or that of presenting (in particular circumstances) the most serious cases to the Holy Father with a view to dismissing the offender from the clerical state.

2) Having lay persons as members of the tribunal staff, or as lawyers or prosecutors (it is no longer strictly necessary for these staff to have a doctorate in canon law, but the required competency can also be proved in another way; for example, with a licentiate).

3) An increase of the statue of limitations from ten years to twenty years, with the possibility of extension even beyond that period.

4) Establishing parity between the abuse of mentally disabled people and that of minors, and the introduction of a new category: paedophile pornography. This is defined as: “the acquisition, possession or disclosure” by a member of the clergy, “in any way and by any means, of pornographic images of minors under the age of fourteen”.

5) The document also listed the attempted ordination of a woman as a “grave crime” to be handled by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, just as clerical sex abuse is.

Regulations concerning the secrecy of trials are maintained, in order to safeguard the dignity of all the people involved and norms relating to collaboration with the civil authorities are unchanged. The updated norms are part of the penal code of canon law, the Vatican said, which is complete in itself and entirely distinct from the law of states.

Msgr. Charles Scicluna, in effect the Vatican’s chief prosecutor, said the new document was a “consolidation” of the faculties, or options, that had evolved over the past nine years, and which have now been “transformed into norms”. This is a step forward, he said, “because a norm of law is binding and certain.” These norms, he said later, “really put into law the practice of the Congregation.”

On the issue of women’s ordination, Msgr. Scicluna reminded reporters that there are “two types of grave delicts”: those concerning administering the sacraments and Christian morality. Ordination of women, he said, is grave but on another level. It is a crime against the Catholic faith and the sacrament of Orders while the abuse of minors is an “egregious violation of the moral law.”

Asked whether he thought, as a result of this document, 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 issue of pedophile pornography and mental illness were important “extensions of the law” which in sum were about “ensuring the dignity and safeguarding of these people.”

For further reading, see:

The full text of Normae de gravioribus delictis, revised by Pope Benedict XVI on 21 May 2010.

The CDF’s full list of changes to John Paul II’s 2001 motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela

Statement from Cardinal William J Levada, prefect of the CDF

Fr. Federico Lombardi’s summary

Vatican Information Service summary

Historical introduction to John Paul II’s 2001 Motu proprio “Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela”