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Secret Vatican norms on abuse show conflicts with U.S. policy


Previously secret Vatican norms governing sex abuse cases, obtained in mid-November by NCR, appear generally consistent with policies adopted by the American bishops in Washington Nov. 13, but experts who have reviewed both documents see at least two possible conflicts:

  • The Vatican norms state that cases involving sexual abuse of a minor by a priest “must only be pursued in a judicial process.” The norms adopted in Washington, on the other hand, empower bishops to use administrative means to remove a priest from ministry if pursuing the case in a church court proves impossible.
  • The Vatican norms state that such cases are covered by “pontifical secrecy,” a grade of confidentiality just short of sacramental confession. How that will affect the bishops’ pledge of full cooperation with civil authorities is not clear.

A consultant for the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, however, told NCR Nov. 20 that both potential conflicts are more hypothetical than real.

The previously unpublished Vatican norms, promulgated by John Paul II on April 30, 2001, but released to bishops only on a case-by-case basis, are available on the NCR Web site under “documents.” (For complete web address see below.)

As was already known from media reports, the norms state that six grave “delicts,” a word meaning “offense,” including sexual abuse of a minor, are reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Bishops must inform the congregation when a case arises and request permission to proceed. In some cases, the congregation itself may take up the case (NCR, Dec. 14, 2001).

Upon obtaining the full set of norms, NCR asked two veteran canon lawyers, one in North America and the other in Rome, to examine the norms in light of the program adopted by the U.S. bishops. Both did so on condition of anonymity.

Both highlighted the question of extrajudicial measures to remove priests. Article 17 of the Vatican norms seems to rule this out, stating flatly: “The more grave delicts reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith must only be pursued in a judicial process.”

Much of the Vatican’s concern with the original plan adopted by the U.S. bishops at their meeting last June in Dallas centered on this point. The revised norms worked out by a “mixed commission” of Vatican officials and U.S. bishops in late October envision that such cases will be handled in church courts.

Under Norm 9 of the U.S. program, however, bishops can use administrative means “at all times” if the legal route is unavailable.

“Norm 9 is hard to reconcile with the baldness and starkness of Article 17, which seems to rule out administrative solutions,” one canonist said. He predicted arguments as to which document trumps the other -- the Vatican norms or the U.S. norms.

Yet Msgr. John Renken of the diocese of Springfield, Ill., a canonist and consultant for the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, told NCR Nov. 20 that such a conflict is highly unlikely.

For the most part, Renken said, Norm 9 will be invoked while a bishop is waiting for a canonical process to begin. In virtually every case that he could imagine, using Norm 9 to impose permanent removal from ministry would be because a “delict” could not be established, and hence the Vatican norms would be irrelevant.

For example, if the canonical statute of limitations has run out and the Vatican declines to grant a waiver, Renken said, technically speaking there is no crime to prosecute, and hence Article 17 does not apply.

A separate flash point comes in Norm 11 of the U.S. program, which specifies that dioceses will “comply with all applicable civil laws with respect to the reporting of allegations … to civil authorities and will cooperate in their investigation.” Article 25 of the Vatican norms, however, states, “Cases of this nature are subject to pontifical secrecy.”

Renken said, “Exactly what ramifications this may have will have to be worked out. But we are committed to cooperating fully with the civil authorities. That will not be voided by some other statement.”

Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, an expert on sex abuse issues who has testified for victims in scores of cases, said civil law would prevail in any event.

“The civil law will have a hard time if the case files remain in the Vatican due to diplomatic immunity, but if the files are over here somewhere, attorneys can get them, because that level of secrecy is not the same as confessional privilege,” Doyle told NCR.

Other observations on the Vatican norms:

  • Article 5 restates the statute of limitations on sexual abuse of a minor, which is 10 years from the victim’s 18th birthday. Several bishops in Washington said they expect the Vatican to almost automatically grant waivers for American cases.

One of the canon lawyers contacted by NCR, however, was skeptical.

“I have heard of no canonist who believes that dispensations will be routine,” he said. “Bishops who think that they will be able to ‘purify’ the church of anyone who has had even a single offense, no matter how long ago, are either bluffing or simply ignorant.”

  • Both analysts agreed that the norms reflect a desire to expedite cases. Article 6 states there is no appeal from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Normally decisions by Vatican offices can be appealed to the church’s highest court, the Apostolic Signatura, known for its scrupulous attention to procedure. A normal appeal to the Signatura might take two to three years, while waits of up to five years are not uncommon. That time span should be abbreviated under the norms.
  • Article 19 of the Vatican norms allow the congregation to add new accusations to a process already underway, so a tribunal does not have to start from scratch in order to address them.
  • Article 20 allows a tribunal to protect the anonymity of an accuser, even from the accused priest. This is a marked change in favor of victims, according to one canonist, since the Signatura has traditionally insisted that knowing one’s accuser is part of the “natural right of defense.”

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

The document cited in this article is available at http://www.natcath.org/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm The document is titled VATICAN NORMS GOVERNING GRAVE OFFENSES, INCLUDING SEXUAL ABUSE OF MINORS.

National Catholic Reporter, November 29, 2002