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Vatican revises norms for clerical abuse of minors, other ‘exceptionally serious’ crimes

Catholic World News - July 15, 2010

The Holy See Press Office has published a revised edition of the 2001 norms dealing with clerical abuse of minors and other “exceptionally serious” crimes against faith and morals.

“The norms of canon law dealing with crimes of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy have been published today in a comprehensive and updated form, in a document which covers all the crimes the Church considers as exceptionally serious and, for that reason, subject to the competency of the Tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” said Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, the director of the Holy See Press Office. “Apart from sexual abuse, these include crimes against the faith and against the Sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance and Holy Orders.”

The revised norms, approved by Pope Benedict XVI on May 21, were sent by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to all the bishops of the Church on that date.

The revised norms (Normae de Gravioribus Delictis) codify seven modifications originally made by Pope John Paul II and confirmed by Pope Benedict in 2005—most significantly the increase of the statute of limitations to 20 years, the right to lift the statute on a case-by-case basis, and the faculty to request that the Pontiff dismiss offenders from the clerical state without an ecclesial trial. Another modification granted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “the right, as mandated by the Roman Pontiff, to judge Cardinals, Patriarchs, Legates of the Apostolic See, [and] Bishops.”

The revised norms also list crimes against faith and morals that were not included in the 2001 document, including heresy, apostasy, schism, “the indirect violation of the seal” of Confession, “the recording and divulgation of a sacramental confession done with malice,” “the attempted ordination of a woman,” and “the acquisition, possession or distribution of pornographic images of minors under the age of 14, a clerico turpe patrata [shamefully accomplished by a cleric], in any way and by any means.” Furthermore, the revised norms state that “a person over 18 years of age who is developmentally disabled is equated to a minor” in the norms’ treatment of the “more grave delicts against morals.”

The Holy See Press Office noted that the essence of the 2001 document remained unchanged; rather, “the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith felt it necessary to propose certain changes to these norms, not modifying the text in its entirety, but rather only in a few areas, in an effort to improve the application of the law.” Thus the following serious crimes are reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the 2001 norms and in the 2010 revision:

Accompanying the revised norms, the Holy See Press Office published a lengthy treatment of the norms’ historical background:

The Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope Benedict XV in 1917 recognized the existence of a number of canonical crimes or "delicts" reserved to the exclusive competence of the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office which, as a tribunal, was governed by its own proper law (cfr. can. 1555 CIC 1917).
A few years after the promulgation of the 1917 Code, the Holy Office issued an Instruction, "Crimen Sollicitationis" (1922), which gave detailed instruction to local dioceses and tribunals on the procedures to be adopted when dealing with the canonical delict of solicitation. This most grave crime concerned the abuse of the sanctity and dignity of the Sacrament of Penance by a Catholic priest who solicited the penitent to sin against the sixth commandment, either with the confessor himself, or with a third party. The norms issued in 1922 were an update, in light of the Code of Canon Law of 1917, of the Apostolic Constitution "Sacramentorum Poenitentiae" promulgated by Pope Benedict XIV in 1741.
A number of concerns had to be addressed, underlining the specificity of the legislation (with implications which are less relevant from the perspective of civil penal law): the respect of the dignity of the sacrament, the inviolable seal of the confessional, the dignity of the penitent and the fact that in most cases the accused priest could not be interrogated fully on what occurred without putting the seal of confession in danger.
This special procedure was based, therefore, on an indirect method of achieving the moral certitude necessary for a definitive decision in the case. This indirect method included investigating the credibility of the person accusing the priest and the life and behaviour of the accused priest. The accusation itself was considered the most serious accusation one could bring against a Roman Catholic priest. Therefore, the procedure took care to ensure that a priest who could be a victim of a false or calumnious accusation would be protected from infamy until proven guilty. This was achieved through a strict code of confidentiality which was meant to protect all persons concerned from undue publicity until the definitive decision of the ecclesiastic tribunal.
The 1922 Instruction included a short section dedicated to another canonical delict: the "crimen pessimum" [the worst crime, i.e., the homosexual act] which dealt with same-sex clerical misconduct. This further section determined that the special procedures for solicitation cases should be used for "crimen pessimum" cases, with those adaptations rendered necessary by the nature of the case. The norms concerning the "crimen pessimum" also extended to the heinous crime of sexual abuse of prepubescent children and to bestiality.
The Instruction "Crimen sollicitationis" was, therefore, never intended to represent the entirety of the policy of the Catholic Church regarding sexual improprieties on the part of the clergy. Rather, its sole purpose was to establish a procedure that responded to the singularly delicate situation that is a sacramental confession, in which the duty of complete confidentiality on the part of the priest corresponds, according to divine law, to the complete openness of the intimate life of the soul on the part of the penitent. Over time and only analogously, these norms were extended to some cases of immoral conduct of priests. The idea that there should be comprehensive legislation that treats the sexual conduct of persons entrusted with the educational responsibility is very recent; therefore, attempting to judge the canonical norms of the past century from this perspective is gravely anachronistic.
The 1922 Instruction was given as needed to bishops who had to deal with particular cases concerning solicitation, clerical homosexuality, sexual abuse of children and bestiality. In 1962, Blessed Pope John XXIII authorised a reprint of the 1922 Instruction, with a small section added regarding the administrative procedures to be used in those cases in which religious clerics were involved. Copies of the 1962 re-print were meant to be given to the Bishops gathering for the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). A few copies of this re-print were handed out to bishops who, in the meantime, needed to process cases reserved to the Holy Office but, most of the copies were never distributed.
The reforms proposed by the Second Vatican Council required a reform of the 1917 Code of Canon Law and of the Roman Curia. The period between 1965 and 1983 (the year when the new Latin Code of Canon Law appeared) was marked by differing trends in canonical scholarship as to the scope of canonical penal law and the need for a de-centralized approach to cases with emphasis on the authority and discretion of the local bishops. A "pastoral attitude" to misconduct was preferred and canonical processes were thought by some to be anachronistic. A "therapeutic model" often prevailed in dealing with clerical misconduct. The bishop was expected to "heal" rather than "punish". An over-optimistic idea of the benefits of psychological therapy guided many decisions concerning diocesan or religious personnel, sometimes without adequate regard for the possibility of recidivism.
Cases concerning the dignity of the Sacrament of Penance remained with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office; its name changed in 1965) after the Council, and the Instruction "Crimen Sollicitationis" was still used for such cases until the new norms established by the motu proprio "Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela" in 2001.
A small number of cases concerning sexual misconduct of clergy with minors was referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after the Second Vatican Council. Some of these cases were linked with the abuse of the sacrament of Penance, while a number may have been referred as requests for dispensations from the obligations of priesthood, including celibacy (sometimes referred to as "laicization") which were dealt with by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith until 1989 (From 1989 to 2005 the competence in these dispensation cases was transferred to the Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship; from 2005 to the present the same cases have been treated by the Congregation for the Clergy).
The Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983 updated the whole discipline n can, 1395, § 2: "A cleric who in another way has committed an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, if the delict was committed by force or threats or publicly or with a minor below the age of sixteen years, is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants". According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law canonical trials are held in the dioceses. Appeals from judicial sentences may be presented to the Roman Rota, whereas administrative recourses against penal decrees are presented to the Congregation for the Clergy.
In 1994 the Holy See granted an indult to the Bishops of the United States: the age for the canonical crime of sexual abuse of a minor was raised to 18. At the same time, prescription (canonical term for Statute of Limitations) was extended to a period of 10 years from the 18th birthday of the victim. Bishops were reminded to conduct canonical trials in their dioceses. Appeals were to be heard by the Roman Rota. Administrative Recourses were heard by the Congregation for the Clergy. During this period (1994 - 2001) no reference was made to the previous competence of the Holy Office over such cases.
The 1994 Indult for the US was extended to Ireland in 1996. In the meantime the question of special procedures for sexual abuse cases was under discussion in the Roman Curia. Finally Pope John Paul II decided to include the sexual abuse of a minor under 18 by a cleric, among the new list of canonical delicts reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Prescription for these cases was of ten (10) years from the 18th birthday of the victim. This new law was promulgated in the motu proprio "Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela" on 30 April 2001. A letter signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, respectively Prefect and Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was sent to all the Roman Catholic Bishops on 18 May 2001. This letter informed the bishops of the new law and the new procedures which replaced the Instruction "Crimen Sollicitationis".
The acts that constitute the most grave delicts reserved to the Congregation were specified in this letter, both those against morality and those committed in the celebration of the Sacraments. Also given were special procedural norms to be followed in cases concerning these grave delicts, including those norms regarding the determination and imposition of canonical sanctions….
Nine years after the promulgation of the motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith felt it necessary to propose certain changes to these norms, not modifying the text in its entirety, but rather only in a few areas, in an effort to improve the application of the law.
After a serious and attentive study of the proposed changes, the Cardinals and Bishops Members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presented the results of their decisions to the Supreme Pontiff and, on 21 May 2010, Pope Benedict XVI gave his approval and ordered the promulgation of the revised text.
The text of the Norms on delicta graviora currently in force is the text approved by the Holy Father Benedict XVI on 21 May 2010.

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  • Posted by: Mike in Toronto - Jul. 15, 2010 1:52 PM ET USA

    Excellent, informative article.

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