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Church in Crisis

Revisions leave unanswered questions


Analysts say that significant patches of fog remain after an eight-member commission composed of four Vatican and four U.S. bishops revealed its revisions to the Dallas norms governing sexual abuse by priests Nov. 4.

Whether the revisions amount to a retreat from zero tolerance, and what will now happen to the some 300 priests removed from ministry since June, hangs on what the landscape looks like when, and if, that fog eventually lifts.

Among the questions:

  • What criteria will bishops and their lay review boards use to determine which acts qualify as “external, objectively grave violations of the Sixth Commandment” triggering permanent removal from ministry? (In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in the section on the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” is a section headed “other offenses” that links “sexual abuse perpetrated by adults on children entrusted to their care” with adultery.)
  • How will the Vatican determine which “appropriate pastoral motives” justify granting a waiver from the canonical statute of limitations for sexual abuse?
  • To what extent will bishops now be obligated to report accusations of sexual abuse to civil authorities?

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, issued a statement saying that the commission “substantially confirmed the decisions made” in Dallas.

Victims’ advocates were immediately critical.

“It’s worse than we feared,” David Clohessy of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests told NCR Nov. 6. “It’s a pretty wholesale retreat from Dallas, and I think it’s very disingenuous of the bishops to claim otherwise.”

The formation of a mixed commission of Vatican and U.S. bishops was announced Oct. 18, when a letter from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, to Gregory was released. In that letter, Re indicated a need to revise the Dallas program before the Vatican would bestow a recognitio, or formal legal approval. The recognitio is necessary to make Dallas “particular law,” meaning binding and obligatory, for all dioceses in the United States.

The revisions now go before the U.S. bishops during their Washington meeting Nov. 11-14, and are expected to win approval. They will then return to the Vatican for final approval. The text calls for a review of the program after two years.

Item one from the mixed commission is a more restrictive standard for what constitutes “sexual abuse.” The move follows complaints that the definition in Dallas was so broad as to include a wide range of behaviors that, while inappropriate, do not necessarily justify permanent removal from ministry.

In place of the “physical and non-physical interactions” definition in the Dallas charter (borrowed from the Canadian bishops’ document “From Pain to Hope” of 1992), the commission reverted to the language currently in the Code of Canon Law: “An external, objectively grave violation of the Sixth Commandment.”

By way of explanation, the commission added that, “a canonical offense against the Sixth Commandment need not be a complete act of intercourse. Nor, to be objectively grave, does an act need to involve force, physical contact, or a discernible harmful outcome.”

Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, vice-president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, told NCR Nov. 3 that it will be up to each bishop and his lay advisory board to determine whether a particular act meets this standard. He said he does not anticipate that the bishops will spell out a uniform set of criteria for making this judgment.

The powers and status of lay review boards is the second major adjustment.

Norm #4 from Dallas had read: “To assist the diocesan/eparchial bishop in his work, each diocese/eparchy will have a review board.” The revised norms read: “Each diocese/eparchy will also have a review board that will function as a confidential consultative body to the bishop/eparch in discharging his responsibilities.” The change in wording emphasizes that these boards are consultative only, and that it is the diocesan bishop who has responsibility for priestly discipline.

Furthermore, the inclusion of the word “confidential” as a descriptive term raises other questions. From Dallas onward, national lay board members and others have consistently said that without official authority the main vehicle by which they could assure episcopal compliance to the norms is public opinion. By this they meant they could, if necessary, go to the media to make their assessments known. Now, it appears, if they are to be “confidential” bodies, the avenue of public opinion might be denied them.

The revised document also drops Norm #6 from Dallas, which called for the creation of lay appellate boards at a regional level. The mixed commission apparently felt these boards would conflict with the role of existing church appellate courts.

Skylstad acknowledged that critics will see these revisions as a defense of clerical power but insisted that’s not the way the bishops want things to work.

“In a certain sense, all of our boards in the church are consultative,” Skylstad said. “But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to listen to them. I always tell pastors that just because they ultimately have the authority, they can’t just veto whatever their pastoral councils recommend. Do that and nobody will want to participate.”

The revised norms from the mixed commission pay greater attention to due process, sticking closer to existing canon law.

Instead of automatic removal from ministry as soon as an accusation of sexual abuse surfaces, the revised norms call on the bishop to conduct a “preliminary investigation in harmony with canon law.” If the accusation appears credible, the priest is to be suspended from ministry, and even prohibited from celebrating Mass in public. The bishop is also to report the case to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in keeping with the papal motu proprio of May 18, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela. That document gives the congregation the authority to take up the case itself, or to remand it to a local church court. The operating assumption is that local ecclesiastical tribunals will generally handle American cases.

One key procedural issue is the statute of limitations. The revised norms specify that bishops may ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a waiver from the statute of limitations for “appropriate pastoral reasons.” It does not specify what those reasons might be, nor which criteria will be applied in Rome to evaluate these requests.

Canon law specifies that an offense cannot be prosecuted more than 10 years after the victim’s 18th birthday. The offenses committed by most of the 300 priests removed since Dallas lie farther in the past. Hence if the statute of limitations were to be applied literally, most of those priests would be eligible to be reinstated.

One bishop member of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse told NCR that such a result would mean “pandemonium.”

Speaking of the possibility that the Vatican might order some priests reinstated, Skylstad said, “There may be some of that.” He said the feeling among the American bishops had been that it was better to be tough up front, allowing for the possibility that some removals might be reversed by church courts in Rome.

The revised norms specify that an accused priest has the right to an ecclesiastical trial before final punishment is imposed. Presumably this responsibility will fall to local church tribunals.

Some canonists think the caseload might overwhelm the system and that special regional tribunals should be created.

Finally, some critics believe the revised norms weaken the obligation on bishops and other church authorities to report accusations of sexual abuse to civil authorities.

The original language from Dallas read, “The diocese/eparchy will report to the public authorities any allegation (unless canonically privileged) of sexual abuse of a person who is currently a minor and will cooperate in their investigation.” The revised norms read, “The diocese/eparchy will comply with all applicable civil laws with respect to the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities and will cooperate in their investigation.”

That second standard seems to some analysts to call for compliance with whatever local law requires, as opposed to the fullest possible disclosure.

The mixed commission met in Rome Oct. 28 and 29. Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, Colombian, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy; Archbishop Julian Herranz, a Spaniard, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts; Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Italian, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and Archbishop Francesco Monterisi, another Italian, secretary of the Congregation for Bishops. The four men represent the four Vatican offices involved in the review of the norms.

For the Americans, members were Cardinal Francis George of Chicago; Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco; Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill.; and Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. He is currently on assignment in the United States. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, posted November 7, 2002