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
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 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
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
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,"
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
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