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Cracking the Code: Sex-Abuse Norms 101

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 crisis.

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 Catholics.

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 journalist.

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 laypeople.

• 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 judicial process.

• 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 diocese.

• 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 site.

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.

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