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Doctrinal congregation given authority over sex abuse cases


In what experts describe as an attempt to balance the rights of priests accused of sexually abusing children against the desire to speed up judgment in these often agonizing cases, the pope has assigned exclusive juridical authority over such cases to the Vatican’s powerful doctrinal agency.

Under the new rules, bishops will be required to report probable sexual abuse of minors by priests to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which can decide to let a local tribunal handle the case or to take it up in Rome. The rules impose strict secrecy, stipulate a 10-year statute of limitations from the accuser’s 18th birthday, and specify that such cases must be handled by priest-staffed courts.

The ultimate canonical penalty in such cases is expulsion from the priesthood.

Depending on how the new system is applied, priests accused of sexual misconduct could be defrocked more rapidly if judged to be guilty, or protected from ill-defined suspension by bishops if held to be innocent.

The change may also mean the pope will no longer feel compelled to summarily defrock priests outside judicial channels, a secret procedure used by John Paul between five and 25 times during his papacy, according to sources.

John Paul II created the new rules in a document issued motu proprio, meaning under his personal authority. Though the document has not been made public, a six-page letter in Latin summarizing its contents was sent to bishops and heads of religious orders in June.

The news was first reported by Catholic News Service Dec. 4. The summary letter, dated May 18, and an English translation prepared for the U.S. bishops were obtained Dec. 5 by NCR.

Vatican officials said the norms will be sent to bishops only on a case-by-case basis. Some canonists, however, think Rome will have to publish them.

“It is very hard to see how a secret law can oblige,” Oblate Fr. Frank Morrisey of St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada, told NCR.

Canon lawyers say that based on the summary, the norms seem to clarify what has long been a confusing situation of overlapping jurisdiction, with six different Vatican offices previously having at least some authority in sex abuse cases.

The decision to assign jurisdiction to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is seen, at least in part, as a way of protecting judgments against being overturned, since the doctrinal office is “first among equals” in the curia.

In addition to sexual abuse of minors, the new rules assign several other matters to the doctrinal office. They include sacrilege of the Eucharist, forbidden concelebration of Communion with Protestant ministers, and abuse of the sacrament of penance, including cases in which a priest uses the pretext of confession to solicit sexual favors.

Though the new rules allow the Vatican to decide whether cases will be handled locally or in Rome, experts said this does not necessarily signal a new assault on the authority of local churches. More probably, they say, it is intended to address situations in which dioceses do not have the resources to conduct canonical trials.

“The United States has a number of dioceses, such as Milwaukee and St. Paul [Minn.], that have first-rate tribunals, and they can handle these cases,” one canon lawyer told NCR. “But an ecclesiastical trial is an enormous undertaking, and lots of places aren’t capable of it.”

Experts say that the background of the move is a decade-long debate between the Vatican and many bishops, above all in the United States. Those bishops have been pushing for the option to use an “administrative procedure” that would permit them to suspend priests, perhaps indefinitely, without holding an ecclesiastical trial.

In part, bishops sometimes want to take quick action in order to comfort victims. In part, too, there is a dollars and cents motive. Since U.S. courts often consider the punishment meted out to guilty priests when assessing charges of negligence against a diocese, an inability to exercise swift judgment can sometimes cost millions of dollars.

The Roman curia, on the other hand, tends to place a higher value on protecting the “natural rights” of the priest, including rights to privacy and to protect his reputation if wrongly charged with a crime.

“The Congregation for the Clergy has received numerous complaints from priests who have been systematically denied procedural rights after an accusation, even one they have denied,” one canon lawyer told NCR.

“Bishops have been governed by the advice of their civil lawyers, who use concepts like putting the priest on ‘administrative leave,’ which does not exist in canon law. The bishop should suspend the priest, but to do this he must begin a penal process. However, bishops either don’t want to be bothered, or they lack competent canonists who can conduct a trial,” the canon lawyer said.

In the absence of a canonically acceptable solution, the pope has in a handful of cases short-circuited the process by personally ordering priests defrocked.

“He does it with the stroke of a pen. It’s a dirty little secret that we all know about and pretend not to see,” the source said. Most of these cases, the source said, arose in the developing world.

In this light, the May 18 motu proprio is seen as a compromise. It maintains the principle of formal judicial review but could allow the doctrinal congregation to speed up the process of reaching a verdict in urgent cases.

Some experts were leery of concentrating power in Rome. “While the temptation to centralize is strong, we must be careful to respect bishops’ rights and prerogatives,” Morrisey said.

Still, many seemed optimistic.

“I think this new document will be a service to the church, because now the canonical system should be able to operate more as it is intended. If bishops lack the resource for a trial, then the doctrinal office can conduct it,” said one canonist, often critical of the Vatican on other matters.

“We probably should have some faith in this,” another said. “It has the potential to be very helpful.”

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

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001