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.