Doctrinal Congregation Given Authority over Sex Abuse Cases: Vatican Move Seen as Attempt to Balance Priests' Rights, Victims' Need for Rapid Action. (World)

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001 | Go to article overview

Doctrinal Congregation Given Authority over Sex Abuse Cases: Vatican Move Seen as Attempt to Balance Priests' Rights, Victims' Need for Rapid Action. (World)


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


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. …

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