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Church in Crisis

Vatican expected to deny approval of sex abuse norms


While affirming the intent of the U.S. bishops to protect young people from sexual abuse, the Vatican will not grant legal approval to new American norms adopted in Dallas June 14. Instead, sources say that Rome will invite U.S. prelates to discuss how those rules can be harmonized with the church’s universal law.

Vatican sources said that formal notice of this decision is likely to be issued in early October. The result means that, as a matter of law, the Dallas norms will not yet be binding on American dioceses. Moreover, elements that differ from the Code of Canon Law, such as the statute of limitations for sexual abuse, may not be enforceable, or could be subject to reversal should a case be appealed to a church court in Rome.

The outcome has been widely expected, given a spate of critical comments on the American approach from Vatican officials both before and after the June vote (NCR, May 31).

The result also reflects a growing concern from within the United States, especially among canon lawyers worried that the Dallas norms fail to adequately protect the due process rights of accused priests. Widely circulated critiques include those of prominent canonists such as Msgr. Thomas Green of The Catholic University of America and Fr. Robert Kealy of the Chicago archdiocese. (Full texts available at www.natcath.org/ncr_onli.htm, click on Documents)

The Dallas norms are expected to be a main topic of conversation at the Canon Law Society of America meeting in Cincinnati Oct. 7-10, roughly the same time that the Vatican announcement is expected.

Observers say the concerns raised by the American canonists are largely those shared in the Vatican.

In his 5,000-word critique, Green identified a number of positive features of the Dallas documents, including “a forceful commitment in principle to pastoral healing, accountability and dialogue within the Catholic community.”

Green also identified several negatives, including:

  • The lack of due process considerations, especially the power to impose “administrative leave” without establishing that the normal criteria for such a provision have been met (which include preventing scandal, protecting witnesses and safeguarding the course of justice), as well as allowing the accused the possibility of response or recourse.
  • An overly broad definition of “sexual abuse” that can encompass a whole range of physical and non-physical acts.
  • The fact that the penalty for sexual abuse (permanent removal from ministry) is the same no matter what the “abuse” may be, which Green argues is “contrary to our traditional penal emphasis on proportionality.”
  • Disregard of the statute of limitations (known as “prescription” in canon law), leading to removal from ministry for offenses that may have occurred 20 or 30 years in the past. Canon law presently specifies that the clock runs out for offenses committed before Nov. 27, 1983, after five years from the date of the offense; for offenses committed on or after Nov. 27, 1983, and prior to April 25, 1994, five years after the victim has completed the 18th year; and for offenses committed on or after April 25, 1994, 10 years after the victim has completed the 18th year.
  • A near-exclusive focus on priests, with no attention to the accountability of bishops, either for abuse they may have committed, or for failing to respond adequately to abuse carried out by priests under their supervision.

“These are not minor points, but serious issues that need much more reflection,” Green told NCR.

Kealy touches some of the same points, and in addition raises questions about the review boards called for by the norms, as well as confidentiality. Some canonists grumble that American bishops are making public announcements when they suspend priests with little regard for what canon law defines as their right to protect their “good name.”

An analysis of the Dallas norms prepared by the Canon Law Society of America in August raises another dimension of the confidentiality issue, which is to what extent bishops ought to share privileged communications with their priests with civil authorities.

Though the Dallas norms seem to envision the full cooperation of bishops, the Canon Law Society analysis calls for caution: “For the bishop to release to the public authorities statements made to him by a priest would make the bishop, effectively, an agent of the civil prosecutor.”

Vatican jurisprudence has long emphasized the due process rights of the accused in canonical procedures, leading some bishops to complain of being hamstrung. An illustration came with a recent ruling by a Vatican court to reinstate an Australian priest, Fr. James Barry Whelan, who had been suspended in 1996 by Archbishop George Pell, then of Melbourne, following accusations of sexual abuse. Whelan appealed to Rome and won. Ironically, his reinstatement came at roughly the same time that new allegations against him surfaced.

Analysts have warned of negative public reaction should the Vatican not approve the American norms, and sources in Rome say the Vatican document has been thoroughly vetted to seem positive and sympathetic.

At the same time, some in Rome, and in the United States, believe that American public opinion has shifted away from a rigid “get tough” approach.

“There’s less rage right now,” Marist Fr. Ted Keating, executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, told NCR.

“As people realized that there are men back in ministry for 20 or more years who are dynamite pastors, where the local community knew their background, who now have been removed, there has been a counter-reaction,” Keating said.

The Conference of Major Superiors of Men, an umbrella group for men’s religious orders, adopted a statement Aug. 10 that calls for honoring the Dallas norms by removing abusers from ministry, but at the same time not necessarily to eject them from religious life.

Several canonists contacted by NCR argued that the Vatican reaction has some merit.

“The only thing that mattered in Dallas is public opinion,” one prominent canon lawyer said. “Due process, the presumption of innocence, the right to a defense, the right not to be tried by new penal laws or after the statute of limitations has expired, the right to face one’s accuser or even know his identity -- many of these rights are ignored by bishops when it comes to their own priests.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, September 27, 2002