New Rules On Sex Abuse--What Will The Vatican Announce?

A few months ago, during the height of the latest abuse scandal, the Holy See created a new page on its website offering resources documenting the Church’s response to the problem over the last number of years.


One of the things they put on it was a brief, layman’s guide to the procedures the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith uses in evaluating cases of priestly sexual abusers.


One of the things that document did was say that there is a revision underway of the current regulations, which are set forth in a motu proprio called Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela. Specifically, the document said:

For some time the CDF has undertaken a revision of some of the articles of Motu Proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis tutela, in order to update the said Motu Proprio of 2001 in the light of special faculties granted to the CDF by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Now a plethora of press reports indicate that the publication of the revision is nigh. In fact, according to several press accounts, it was approved by Pope Benedict in a Saturday audience with Cardinal William Levada (head of the CDF) last week. (NOTE: That it was a Saturday audience is kind of odd. Normally the pope meets with the head of the CDF on Fridays, though perhaps not that much should be read into the shift of days.)

There is no way of knowing at this point how accurate the press accounts are of what the new norms will say, but piecing bits together from different reports suggest that there may be interesting things afoot.

First, what kind of form will the new norms take? It appears that they may not be a new motu proprio—which is a document issues by the pope. Instead, they may be an instruction, which is the kind of document the head of the CDF could issue with the approval of the pope.

It also appears that, concerning priestly sexual abuse, they will largely serve to reinforce the status quo. They will not, according to at least one report, mandate a “one strike and you’re out” policy on a global level. This kind of policy is in place in the United States and in certain other countries, but it has not been mandated globally. If the mainstream media goes after the new norms in a big way, expect it to go after this aspect of them as proof the Holy See isn’t doing enough or still doesn’t “get it.”

Another thing the mainstream media may go after is that the new norms will certainly not require bishops all over the world to report suspected abusers to the police. The norms may say something about complying with local law regarding sexual abuse, but they won’t mandate automatic reporting to civil authorities because it would give totalitarian countries—like Communist China or Vietnam or, apparently, Belgium—a new tool for persecuting the Church, or harming the confidentiality of accusers (some will come forward only on the condition they they aren’t going to have to get involved with the criminal justice system, which is one of the reasons such victims have been speaking out against the actions of the Belgian authorities; they had been frank with the Church under conditions of confidentiality, only to have their files seized by the state for possible use in criminal prosecutions, meaning that the victims may be dragged into civil court).

However understandable the Holy See’s motives may be in not mandating universal reporting to the authorities, don’t count on the MSM to understand them.

A change that the media might see as “good but not enough” in the new norms is the extension of the statue of limitations on reporting priestly sexual abuse from 10 years to 20 years, starting with the victim’s 18th birthday. The CDF has the ability to waive the current 10 year statute of limitations, and according to reports it routinely does so, so the extension to 20 years actually would represent a kind of codification of the status quo.

An interesting expansion of the way sex abuse cases will be treated, reportedly, is that possession of child pornography will now be counted as one of the offenses reserved to the CDF.

At least one source as reports that the abuse of mentally impaired adults will be classified as one of the reserved offenses, putting it on par with child sexual abuse.

It is also expected that the document will make certain provisions that are currently handled as “exceptions” to present norms. According to John Allen, the set of exceptions:

• Allows one judge on a church tribunal to be a lay person, and eliminates the requirement of a doctorate in canon law;
• Allows for by-passing trials in especially grave cases, removing abuser priests on the basis of a decree;
• Gives the doctrinal congregation power to “sanate” the acts of lower courts, meaning to clean up any procedural irregularities;
• Establishes that an appeal in abuse cases goes to the doctrinal congregation rather than the Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court.

There are also indications that the new norms may deal with other crimes reserved to the CDF, but these have not been the focus of current reporting.


Speculation is that the new norms will be announced in the next two weeks, but of course we’ll have to see whether that is the case, as well as whether the above report correspond to what they will actually say.

Count on the media to try to milk maximum sensationalism out of the story (just look at some of the language used in the New York Times’ preliminary report).

In the meantime, what are your thoughts?