Pope Revises Vatican Norms on Clergy Sex Abuse, Confession

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service
February 27, 2003

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Pope John Paul II has changed several Vatican norms to expedite the trial or laicization of priests who have sexually abused minors.

The expedited procedures can also be used to prosecute and, if warranted, laicize priests for committing certain particularly serious crimes against the sacraments.

The pope also refined Vatican norms concerning the crime of breaking the seal of confession.

Copies of the changes were distributed to more than 200 U.S. canon lawyers attending workshops in Washington this February on the church's legal rules and procedures for handling cases of priests accused of molesting minors. Catholic News Service obtained a copy Feb. 26.

The changes are revisions in the substantive and procedural norms enacted by the pope in 2001, giving the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith direct jurisdiction over cases involving certain particularly serious crimes against morals and against the sacraments, including sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric.

As Vatican norms, they apply to such crimes anywhere they are committed. Their use is not restricted to the United States, as is the case with the special U.S. norms for dealing with clergy accused of sexual abuse of minors.

One addition to the Vatican norms says that in certain "grave and clear cases" of a priest committing one of the crimes in question, the doctrinal congregation can now dismiss the priest from the priesthood by decree, without a formal church trial.

For cases that go to trial, the congregation now has the power to dispense with some requirements for judges and other court officials. Under the original norms in 2001, only priests with doctorates in canon law could serve as judges, notaries, promoters of justice (prosecutors) or advocates (defense attorneys) in those criminal cases.

Now the congregation can make exceptions on a case-by-case basis. It can allow the appointment of a layperson or a deacon and the appointment of someone who has a canon law licentiate -- one degree below a doctorate -- and has "worked in ecclesiastical tribunals for a reasonable time."

Those exceptions could be especially important in the United States, where an increasing number of tribunal personnel are nuns, deacons or lay people and where the clergy sex abuse crisis of the past year has contributed to substantial popular sentiment against allowing only priests to serve as judges in church courts trying priests accused of such abuse.

In addition to the procedural changes in the norms, there was a substantive change in addressing the crime of breaking the seal of confession.

Since a 1988 church decree, any Catholic who makes a recording of a sacramental confession or divulges it through the media has been subject to automatic excommunication. A new norm added in February reserves judgment on those cases to the doctrinal congregation.

Another norm on breaking the seal of confession, in the 2001 version, reserved to the doctrinal congregation cases involving "the direct violation of the sacramental seal." It has been revised now to cover cases involving "the direct and indirect violation of the sacramental seal."

Most of the changes in the 2001 norms were approved by the pope Feb. 7. On Feb. 14 he approved one more change, excluding any appeal to the Apostolic Signature, the church's supreme court, against any administrative act of the doctrinal congregation in its dealings with any of the graver crimes listed in the norms. Under the new provision, a person's only recourse against such a decision is an appeal to the doctrinal congregation itself.

Among other crimes reserved to the doctrinal congregation in the 2001 norms are crimes against the Eucharist, giving absolution to an accomplice in sexual sins and soliciting a penitent to commit sexual sins.

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