Last November, as the U.S. bishops debated and approved
the Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial
Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors
by Priests or Deacons, they faced an even larger
challenge than passing the norms. That challenge was to
explain to Catholics and the public what the norms meant
in terms of the Church’s response to the clergy sex-abuse
The challenge was increased by the ongoing struggle between the
media to report accurately the bishops’ work and the bishops’ difficulty
helping the media understand norms based on a code that is foreign to most
Bishop William F. Lori of Bridgeport, a member of the
Vatican-U.S. Mixed Commission that helped revise the norms, acknowledged the
difficulty of explaining the canonical process to the public. “From the aspect
of public perception, a set of norms like we have is difficult because
obviously they can’t contain a pithy phrase or even a slogan like ‘zero
tolerance,’” he said.
What the Norms Say
As a member of the Catholic press for eight years, I have
attended a number of bishops’ meetings and written this magazine’s “The Church
in the News” column. This past year has been the most challenging for me as a
When I returned from the November meeting, time and again people
asked me exactly what the approved norms meant.
So here are the key points contained in the essential norms.
The norms are universal Church law for
U.S. dioceses and Eastern Catholic eparchies, which means they must be followed. The Charter for the Protection of Children and
Young People, which the bishops approved last June and revised in November,
represents the public commitment of the bishops to implement the norms.
All dioceses will have a review board
made up of at least five people, including a priest, a professional with
expertise in the treatment of sexual abuse of minors and a majority of
When an allegation is made, the bishop
will conduct an initial, confidential inquiry into the allegation. If the
bishop, in conjunction with the review board, determines the allegation is
credible, the priest or deacon will be removed from ministry and the case will
proceed to a canonical trial, similar to those for annulments. The tribunal
determines whether the allegation is true or not.
If the tribunal finds the allegation
to be true, the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from
active ministry. The local bishop has a number of options available to him,
including dismissal from the clerical state, which is an entirely separate
In cases where, under canon law, the
10-year statute of limitations has expired, the bishop should petition the Holy
See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith for an exemption in order to bring
the case to trial.
A priest or deacon guilty of an act of
sexual abuse may not be transferred for ministerial assignment to another
Dioceses will comply with all
applicable civil laws concerning the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse
to civil authorities, and will cooperate with their investigation.
The essential norms guarantee due
process for all parties and enable the bishops to apply the canonical penalty
of permanently removing from ministry a priest or deacon, which the bishops
have pledged to do.
If you still find this confusing, you can find the norms
and further information on the bishops’ Web
Important Role of Press
For better or worse, the media—both secular and Catholic—have
played a key role in the ongoing saga of clergy sex abuse.
The investigation by The
Boston Globe was instrumental in uncovering the
recent crisis in its early stages.
That is not to say, however, that all of the reporting has been
fair and accurate. Time and again during the past year, the bishops have
lamented the inaccurate reporting about their response to the clergy sex-abuse
crisis. They have also asked the Catholic press to help them get their message
out with accurate and responsible reporting.
That’s exactly why we Catholic-press journalists come to work
every day. Whether it is addressing the clergy sex-abuse crisis or other issues
confronting the Catholic Church, we in the Catholic press will do our best to
keep you accurately informed. Will we always get the story exactly right? Of
course not. We will, however, stay with the story until we do. If we make a
mistake, we will work to fix it.
And that is where you come in. We rely on you, the readers of
this publication, to let us know how we’re doing. If you think we have
inaccurately reported something, let us know. On the flip side, if we helped
you understand something you previously didn’t, let us know that, too.
Bishop Sean O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., of Palm Beach, Florida, said
during the bishops’ meeting, “I hope that our Catholic media will do their best
to help correct the false impression being given by the secular press.”
This February, as we celebrate Catholic Press Month, we accept
that challenge. S.H.B.