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Let's Not Muddy the Water on Sex Abuse


But Wait, There's More
Questionable Timing

For more than 15 years, the issue of clergy sex abuse has been looming large over the Catholic Church. During those years, the Church has worked to implement changes, albeit slowly at times, in order to address the crisis.

This past July, some of those changes came to light again when the Vatican issued revised procedures that allow the Church to deal more swiftly and effectively with cases of priestly sex abuse. The revisions make practices implemented through special permissions over the last nine years part of Church universal law.

The latest revisions, which were approved by Pope Benedict XVI on May 21 and released July 15, are an update of norms enacted in 2001. The new norms list the sexual abuse of a minor by a priest under the classification of delicta graviora or "more grave crimes."

The revisions also extend the Church law's statute of limitations on accusations of sexual abuse from 10 years after the alleged victim's 18th birthday to 20 years.

Using child pornography is now classified as clerical sexual abuse of minors, and offenders can be dismissed from the priesthood.

The norm applies to "the acquisition, possession, or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors under the age of 14, for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology."

Finally, the sexual abuse of a mentally disabled adult—defined as someone "who habitually lacks the use of reason"—is now considered equivalent to the abuse of a minor.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., said that the publication of the revisions concerning sex abuse "makes a great contribution to the clarity and certainty of law in this field, a field in which the Church is today strongly committed to proceeding with rigor and transparency."


But Wait, There's More

Few people would argue with giving teeth to these norms, many of which have already been in practice for several years. But the new norms don't just cover the sex-abuse crisis. What has raised eyebrows among some Catholics is the Vatican's inclusion of the "attempted sacred ordination of a woman" on its list of delicta graviora for the first time.

The norms essentially restate a 2008 decree from the doctrinal congregation that said a woman who attempts to be ordained a Catholic priest and the person attempting to ordain her are automatically excommunicated. And the cleric can also be dismissed from the priesthood.

In announcing the new norms, Msgr. Charles Scicluna, an official of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, pointed out, though, that the sex-abuse issues and women's ordination were not on the same playing field as far as the Church is concerned.

"There are two types of delicta graviora: those concerning the celebration of the sacraments and those concerning morals. The two types are essentially different and their gravity is on different levels," he explained.

Violations against the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist were also included in the document, as well as "crimes against the faith"—heresy, apostasy and schism.

At a July 15 press conference to discuss the norms, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., addressed the inclusion of women's ordination in the norms. He noted, "The Church's gratitude toward women cannot be stated strongly enough. Women offer unique insight, creative abilities and unstinting generosity at the very heart of the Catholic Church."

Still, he said, "the Catholic Church through its long and constant teaching holds that ordination has been, from the beginning, reserved to men, a fact which cannot be changed despite changing times."

The U.S. bishops held one press conference to address the clergy sex-abuse issues and a second press conference to address sacramental issues in order to distinguish between the separate elements addressed in the norms.

None of the issues addressed in the new norms is especially time sensitive. That then raises the questions, "Why now?" and "Why these issues?"

At the July 15 press conference, Bishop Blase Cupich of Rapid City, South Dakota, and bishop-designate of Spokane, Washington, made a connection between clergy sex abuse and other issues addressed in the norms. Bishop Cupich is the chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People.

"The seriousness with which the Church views sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric cannot be overstated. By putting child sexual abuse by clergy in the same context as the safeguarding of the sacraments, the Church is making it clear that such misconduct violates the core values of our faith and worship," he said.

Of course, any progress on confronting the clergy sex-abuse crisis should certainly be welcomed and heralded. But then why muddy the waters by addressing it along with such a hot-button issue as women's ordination? Surely, the Vatican knew that joining the two would be met with questions and resistance.

Perhaps if the Vatican wants to assert itself on issues confronting the Church, it should tackle these controversial issues one at a time, giving each the attention and discussion it needs.—S.H.B.

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