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Scott P. Richert

Catholic Church Issues New "Norms on Most Serious Crimes"

By July 15, 2010

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In a move widely seen as a reaction to months of media reports on decades-old cases of clerical sexual abuse, the Catholic Church has issued new "Norms on Most Serious Crimes," including clerical sexual abuse of children.

On July 15, 2010, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) made public the new norms, which grew out of Pope John Paul II's 2001 motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (SST). As the Vatican Information Service (VIS) notes, that document "gave the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responsibility to deal with and judge a series of particularly serious crimes within the ambit of canon law," among them clerical sexual abuse of children.

Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela was the result of years of lobbying by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict XVI, who was unhappy with the slowness with which some cases of clerical sexual abuse were dealt. SST placed the responsibility for such cases on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of which Cardinal Ratzinger was then the head.

The new norms have grown out of the experience of implementing Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela over the past decade. In that sense, most of what they contain is not new (and can be found in the Vatican's "Guide to Understanding Basic CDF Procedures concerning Sexual Abuse Allegations," released on April 12, 2010), but the norms are now considered "an official and updated legal text which is valid for the whole Church."

Among the changes reflected in the new norms are "measures intended to accelerate procedures"—that is, ways to address cases of clerical sexual abuse without resorting to a long, drawn-out canonical trial. Particularly with elderly priests, such as the case of Fr. Lawrence Murphy, such trials cannot be concluded before the accused priest dies. (In the case of Father Murphy, the CDF had recommended that Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland drop Murphy's canonical trial and proceed directly to defrock Father Murphy, but Archbishop Weakland did not do so.)

The new norms allow laypeople to serve on the staff of tribunals, provided they have proper training in canon law, and treat mentally disabled people on par with minor children (thus increasing the canonical penalty for clerical sexual abuse of the mentally disabled).

The two most far-reaching changes announced in the new norms are "the introduction of a new category: paedophile pornography" and "the increase of the statue of limitations from ten years to twenty years, with the possibility of extension even beyond that period."

"Paedophile pornography" is defined as "'the acquisition, possession or disclosure' by a member of the clergy, 'in any way and by any means, of pornographic images of minors under the age of fourteen.'" A priest who possesses child pornography will be subject to the same canonical penalties, up to and including defrocking, as a priest who sexually abuses a child.

The extension of the statute of limitation to 20 years means that the Catholic Church maintains a far greater statute of limitations on cases of child sexual abuse than any civil authority. In fact, in cases of sexual abuse involving minors, the Church's statute of limitation is now 20 years from the day that the minor turns 18, no matter when the actual sexual abuse occurs. (In many states, the civil statute of limitations is still seven to ten years from the date the abuse occurs.)

Will the publication of the new "Norms on Most Serious Crimes" calm the media firestorm of the past several months? Probably not. But then, the media uproar has never really been concerned with the protection of children, but with attacking the Catholic Church, in the person of the current Pope.

As the new norms prove, however, Pope Benedict XVI has been the most aggressive member of the Catholic hierarchy in fighting the scourge of clerical sexual abuse. Without his active lobbying of Pope John Paul II to transfer authority concerning cases of clerical sexual abuse to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the changes reflected in the new "Norms on Most Serious Crimes" might never have occurred.

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July 16, 2010 at 8:58 am
(1) Ann says:

We all know the “press” loves nothing better than beating a story to death and then some. When they have a prime target like the Catholic Church they really go at it!! Doubt they would be so aggressive if it were any other faith. God bless our Pope and give him the graces needed to continue his work in correcting and putting an end to this problem.

July 17, 2010 at 12:05 pm
(2) mrs campbell says:

What is disconcerting to me is your last sentence.
“The changes reflected….might never have occured.”
The only conclusion I can draw from that is the rest of the Catholic hierarchy did not feel the problem was serious enough to even address.

July 17, 2010 at 9:15 pm
(3) Scott P. Richert says:

Mrs. Campbell, it’s not that the rest of the hierarchy did not regard the problem as serious; it’s that different people had different ideas about the best way to address the problem. I think Cardinal Ratzinger’s ideas were best, and I’m very glad that he prevailed—and so should anyone who is actually concerned with addressing the problem.

July 20, 2010 at 7:41 pm
(4) Henrietta Jacobson says:

not only are the main media not interested in protecting children otherwise they would publish the facts which is NOW the Catholic church is the safest place for a child b/c of the new rules the Pope instituted. If they were interested in protecting children from sexual abuse they would publish the facts and the facts are the 20,000 children a year are sexually abused by their biological fathers

July 20, 2010 at 7:45 pm
(5) Henrietta Jacobson says:

I forgot to put the statistics of priests the media is using 11,000 children sexually abused by 4450 priests according to the report released spanned 52 years think about the difference in biological fathers 20,000 a year times 52 years 1,040,000 children repeatedly offended in their own homes by their own fathers

why does the media not care about the million abused but care about the 4400 or so THOSE STATS MADE IT CLEAR TO ME!

July 21, 2010 at 10:11 pm
(6) Henrietta says:

If people cared that adults are standing up to priests and are lending their compassion what about the current victims now of children violated by their own fathers when social workers are dealing with it and the courts are sweeping it under the rug

unfortunately this incest issue is going to social workers who are teaching small children to say NO to the perp is that the biggest joke EVER? or is it me? No this is a crime why is the main media not talking about this? Bc it is NOT the children they care about while they are commiting the biggest sin mocking the Lords church which is not one that will be forgiven by the Lord, according to the bible, so they essentially are damning themselves and this fact needs to be emphasized to ALL Catholics so they understand either you stand with us or against us.


July 25, 2010 at 9:13 pm
(7) KP says:

I cannot believe the tone in this article and the praise given to the current Pope for his so-called stand on abuse in the church. Pope Benedict was the person responsible for communicating and upholding the Church’s Crimen sollicitationis (keep quiet or be excommunicated).
The only way to restore faith in the church is to completely rehaul the management and leadership including removing the current Pope and cardinals from their roles, allowing women to become priests and leaders in the church, to turn over all allegations of abuse to local authorities and fully cooperate.

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