The Vatican’s revision of Church norms dealing specifically with the crimes of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy shows the Church’s seriousness in dealing with the crime, Vatican officials have said.
But they concede that more needs to be done, and that the journey of purification is a long one.
Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the promoter of justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the revised rules, signed by the Holy Father May 21 and published July 15, sent a clear signal that the Church is “very, very serious” about protecting children and punishing abusive priests.
However, he added that the Vatican norms, which intended to expedite legal processes and make them more efficient, cannot resolve the problem of sexual abuse and that a coordinated effort is required at every level of the Church.
The revised norms, which have been in the works for some years, include the speeding up of the laicization of priests involved in such crimes, admitting laypeople to tribunal staff and extending the statute of limitations from 10 to 20 years (and possibly longer) after the age of 18. The document also introduces pedophile pornography among the delicta graviora (more grave offense), and it establishes parity between the abuse of mentally disabled people and that of minors.
The Vatican said the norm concerning the secrecy of trials is maintained. Msgr. Scicluna said a better term was “confidentiality,” as it is aimed at protecting the dignity of everyone involved.
However, he said that in some cases, it may be better to waive confidentiality if it is seen as necessary for the common good of the Church.
“The value of confidentiality is important, but it is not absolute,” he said. “The good of the Church sometimes requires not confidentiality but publicity of a process that has been completed, either with a sentence of condemnation or a finding of innocence.”
The norms update Pope John Paul II’s 2001 decree Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, which transferred responsibility of overseeing clerical sexual-abuse cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, explained to reporters July 15 that over the nine years since that decree, it has become necessary to “streamline and simplify” the procedures to make them more effective.
“This has been achieved principally by the Pope attributing new ‘faculties’ to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; faculties that, however, were not inserted into the initial norms,” he said. “This has now come about thanks to a systematic revision of those norms.”
Father Lombardi noted “the vast public echo” of clerical sex abuse over recent years, adding that it is “right” that there should be “complete clarity concerning the regulations.”
The Vatican stressed the updated norms are part of the penal code of canon law, which is complete in itself and entirely distinct from the law of states. But they are not intended to supplant reporting sex abuse by priests to the police and other civil authorities (something the Vatican stressed in a procedural guide published last April).
Msgr. Scicluna stressed it is “not the task of the Pope to give indications about civil law” and that the indication “to obey the law of the state was already stated by St. Paul and it was unnecessary to reaffirm this principle in a technical text like this.”
Elsewhere, the new norms confirm the competency of the CDF to judge prelates accused of “more grave crimes,” and it makes it a grave crime to record confessions with modern technology.
Controversially, the document also listed the attempted ordination of a woman as a “more grave crime,” leading many to view the Vatican as comparing women’s ordination with pedophilia.
However, Msgr. Scicluna reminded reporters that there are “two types of grave delicts [offenses]”: those concerning administering the sacraments, and those to do with 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.”
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.”
But the Vatican is hopeful that they will improve the Church’s handling of these cases. Msgr. Scicluna said the norms were “an important step” that consolidates optional rules and makes them more binding. But he stressed that a “document is always a document and doesn’t solve all problems.”
Father Lombardi likewise said that while “law is necessary,” it is not everything. He told Vatican Radio July 17 there also needs to be “a commitment to education, the formation of clergy and staff who work in institutions linked to the Church, information and prevention, dialogue with and personal care for the victims.”
He said a large part of the Church in many countries has “mobilized itself,” as desired by the Pope, and that the Vatican continues to help local bishops in formulating coherent and effective directives. “The new law is important,” he said, “but we know that our commitment to a purer and more evangelical witness must be a long journey.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.