Tough New Vatican Guidelines on Sex Abuse

I. The Reform

The Vatican codified tougher laws on sexual abuse in Normae de Gravioribus Delictis, a document dealing with the most serious offenses against the Catholic Faith. As regards sex abuse, the reforms include:

  1. an increase in the statute of limitations for reporting sexual abuse from ten to twenty years;
  2. the right to lift the statute of limitations completely, on a case-by-case basis;
  3. the ability to request that the pope defrock a priest immediately, without a trial;
  4. the classification of the mentally retarded as perpetual minors.

In addition to the overhaul in 2001, which put the handling of sex abuse cases in the hands of the notoriously-tough CDF (instead of the chummy Congregation for Bishops), this is very much the overhaul that groups like SNAP claim to have been working for. For example, when the pope issued yet another heartfelt plea for forgiveness, at the close of the Year for Priests, Call to Action attacked him for all talk and no action. That wasn’t a fair charge then, but it’s certainly not a fair charge now.

When I originally read these, I wondered how anyone could oppose them. The reforms make a lot of sense. A statute of limitations is good, because after a long time, witnesses die, memories fade, and there’s an increased risk of things like “false memories,” particularly in this regard. Ideally, a charge is brought while the evidence still exists, and memories are still fresh enough to prove the case — and for the accused to be able to prove his own innocence. Most talk of sex abuse cases seems to assume that any accused priest is guilty. But it’s worth noting that there are countless false accusations, generally from the mentally unstable or greedy, against Catholic clerics. Off the top of my head, I’m aware of proven-false accusations against Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago, as well as Bishop Tod Brown of the Diocese of Orange. And I’m certain that there have been many more. So a statute of limitations helps to protect the innocent (both genuine victims and falsely-accused priests) while providing sufficient time to find and punish the guilty. That’s why for every crime except murder, civil law has a statute of limitations. If you don’t sue within a proscribed period, you waive it — and the statute of limitations for these crimes is much shorter than twenty years generally. A wrongful death action in Missouri normally has a three year statute of limitations, for example. Sex abuse is rightly a longer period, since victims feel cowered into silence, and twenty years is generous. Now, a victim has twenty years (measured from the time he turns 18) in which to speak up. If, by 38, he hasn’t said anything, it’s too late. But by then, he’s no longer a vulnerable youth — he’s a grown man, nearly “over the hill.”

But in a handful of cases, for whatever reason, the twenty-year cutoff just isn’t just. Perhaps the victim tried, and failed, to get someone to listen to him. Perhaps he was mentally retarded. Perhaps the molester was still able to control him even after he became an adult. In these cases, the reforms allow an escape hatch from the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations can be waived (on a case-by-case basis), and the mentally retarded are afforded lifelong protection.

The most important change is that parties can petition the pope to act immediately. If an accused priest is obviously guilty, and poses an ongoing threat, the pope need not afford him due process, and can reduce him form the clerical state immediately, ensuring he’s no longer exercising his priestly facilities. Overall, I think that these policies are a home run.

II. The Response

Unfortunately, the New York Times is already leading the charge against these reforms (in a “news” article, not an opinion piece, no less), and the arguments range from nitpicking to absurd.

  • After a single paragraph noting that the Vatican was making sweeping reforms, the article immediately jumps to: “But in a move that infuriated victims’ groups and put United States bishops on the defensive, it also codified “the attempted ordination of women” to the priesthood as one of the church’s most grave crimes, along with heresy, schism and pedophilia.

This is a stupid argument. It just is. We’re dealing a list of the most serious crimes within the Catholic Church. Anyone who understands how ordination works recognizes that rogue priests or bishops ordaining without permission are a threat to the stability of the Church. This is what Bp. Lefebvre of the Society of St. Pius X was excommunicated for: ordaining without permission. And I’ve never read, in the New York Times or from any liberal Catholic publication, that those automatic excommunications were too harsh. Nor were they. But in SSPX’s case, they were at least ordaining men who were capable of becoming priests. In the case of attempted women’s ordination, the Church teaches that no one (even the pope) has the ability to ordain women, because it wasn’t an authority given. So it’s not one, but two, serious crimes against the Church: rogue ordination, and mock ordination (since it pretends to be an ordination, but isn’t). It’s as serious as holding what appears to be a Mass, and then trying to consecrate a cheeseburger and milkshake. In both cases, it mocks and perverts the sacraments, which are the Divine lifeblood of the Church. Finally, this falls within the category of heresy, anyways.

So women’s ordination is a serious crime against the Church. There’s no attempt to say “this is less serious / as serious / more serious than sex abuse.” Look at it like this. Felonies are the worst crimes within US criminal law. Felonies include tax evasion and murder. Does that mean that the US doesn’t think murder is any worse than tax evasion? Or just that both are serious crimes? So this attempt to make the Church care only about sex abuse is pernicious. It’s asking the Church to ignore every threat to Herself other than one.

  • But the revision fell short of the hopes of many advocates for victims of priestly abuse: It does not contain measures to hold bishops accountable for abuse by priests on their watch, nor does it require mandatory reporting of sex abuse to civil authorities even in countries where it is not required by civil law.

The criticism here seems to be only that there are other reforms which could also be taken. But this seems like an endless road. When the pope apologized, he was criticized for not acting (while apologizing). When substantive action occurred by making the canonical procedures far better, he was criticized for not doing other reforms. Those criticisms aren’t even applicable here, since these reforms deal with the canonical trial.

There are two reform proposals mentioned in the article: penalties for bishops, and mandatory reporting. I’m fine with mandatory reporting, but that reform wouldn’t come here, since it’s not tied to the canonical trial: hopefully, bishops will report all credible accusations of abuse, not just ones that arise within the context of a canonical trial. As for the other “reform,” what does it look like to “hold bishops accountable for abuse by priests on their watch”? Hold that thought, because it’s about to become much, much more absurd.

  • “For years, bishops complained to the Vatican about confusion over how to handle sex abuse cases. In 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a document saying all credible allegations of abuse by priests should be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But the document was not widely diffused, and the confusion remained. “

I was stunned when I read this. The 2001 document the author is referring to is De Delictis Gravioribus, which I talked about before. I’m convinced that’s why the author doesn’t refer to it by name: it would tip astute readers off to the Times‘ absurd double-speak. The New York Times has made a number of mutually contradictory claims about this document, and the authority of the CDF over sexual abuse claims generally. There are three areas where the media’s just reporting brazenly inaccurate information:

  1. Did the document command a coverup? In March, the Times editorial staff hinted that this document was “to keep pedophilia investigations secret under threat of ex-communication.” Now, it’s acknowledging that instead of a cover-up, this was an honest-to-goodness reform. Obviously, the document isn’t both — it’s either an attempt to hide, or fix, the abuse scandal.
  2. Did bishops know about the document? This article claims that the bishops were asking Rome for advice, and didn’t know that Rome had responded. Yet a 2002 Times story notes that “Cardinal Ratzinger sent a letter to all Roman Catholic bishops and heads of religious orders on the change,” and that Ratzinger’s letter “spelled out that if a local bishop or head of a religious order became aware of ”even a hint” of a case of pedophilia ”he must open an investigation and inform” Rome.” So in 2002, the Times was saying that every bishop in the world was informed of these changes, and that they were spelled out in plain language by Ratzinger.
  3. Did the document give the CDF authority to handle sex abuse cases? This article says, plainly, that it did. But two weeks ago, the New York Times wrote that the CDF had been given this authority in 1922, rather than 2001, as they’re claiming today.

The Times is trying to have it both ways: when they peddle the absurd lie that the document mandates a clerical cover up, every bishop knows about it; when they acknowledge the document was a massive step forward, they act like it was unheard of by the bishops trying to handle these cases.

All of these perversions and lies are borne out of a single source: a desire to pin culpability on the Vatican. The truth is simple: bishops were a major part of the problem, and the Vatican was a major part of the solution. By taking authority away from local bishops and the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, and giving it to the CDF, under Ratzinger, it immediately produced results. The cover-ups largely ended, because Ratzinger is tenacious. This version, you’ll note, fits in perfectly with the news accounts from the time, where we kept hearing about rogue clerics (Cardinal Law, Mahoney, etc.) who hid decades of abuse from the public and from the Vatican, while the Vatican essentially shrugged and said, “What abuse scandal?”

So this article continues an increasingly strained attempt to turn the Vatican’s cure into a part of the problem. But, as with the other news stories, it does so in such a blatant manner that it’s silly.

  • “Critics immediately said the revisions announced on Thursday did not go far enough.

    “History has shown that church abuse policies are rarely followed. But even if these new guidelines are obeyed, their impact on the ongoing crisis is likely to be insignificant. Defrocking a predator, by definition, is too late,” SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement. “

WHAT? Didn’t SNAP just attack Pope Benedict for not defrocking predator priests? Like, in April? Certainly, it’s true that if you defrock a predator priest, he’s already abused kids. Likewise, if you send a criminal to jail, he’s already committed crimes. But that doesn’t mean that law enforcement is “insignificant.”

If enforcing the Church’s canons against abusers after their sin isn’t enough, this necessarily requires preventing abuse in the first place. Which requires knowing, or at least suspecting, who likely abusers are. Which brings up immediately the fact that the Church, in direct response to the sex abuse scandal, made it harder to ordain homosexual men to the priesthood (since the abuse scandal was overwhelmingly homosexual in nature). SNAP attacked this, too, as a “Gay purge.”

Now, think back to how victim’s groups are pushing for two things: bishops being held accountable for the crimes of priests, and mandatory reporting. Mandatory reporting is obviously after the fact. And this comment from SNAP suggests that it’s not enough for bishops to cure a problem after it occurs – they have to be able to prevent 100% of cases of sex abuse. Do these seem like sane norms to anyone?? Is there any organization or society which can prevent 100% of crimes?

  •, which tracks cases of sex abuse by priests cases worldwide, said the changes “amount to administrative tinkering of a secretive internal process.”

    “Given his authority, Benedict could implement meaningful change,” the group said in a statement. “He could direct bishops to report every allegation of child sexual abuse to the police, regardless of whether civil law requires them to do so. He could threaten punishment of any bishop or church official who enables or fails to stop a child-molesting priest.”

    It added, “It’s disturbing that the new rules merely will extend the statutes of limitations rather than eliminate them altogether.”

They’re mostly saying the same things I just discussed. But the fact that they find it “disturbing” that there is a statute of limitations at all suggests a detachment from reality. Non-clerical sex abuse, in every developed country, has a statute of limitations. Is that “disturbing”? Or is it just a reflection that there are false accusations, dying witnesses, and a need to preserve due process, instead of just going on witch hunts?

But besides that, the Vatican allows the pope to remove the statute of limitations where the need arises, meaning the Vatican is ahead of civil society on this one. Victims’ groups are getting nearly exactly what they claim they want here, and are still complaining that it’s just “tinkering.” It’s stunning.

  • Monsignor Scicluna also attempted to blunt the impact of the Vatican’s linking of the attempted ordination of women with grave crimes like pedophilia.

    “Sexual abuse and pornography are more grave dealings, they are an egregious violation of moral law,” he said. “Attempted ordination of women is grave, but on another level; it is a wound that is an attempt against the Catholic faith on the sacramental orders.”

If you look at the list of crimes on the list, it’s things like Eucharistic desecration, etc. If any of them don’t “fit” the list, it’s sex abuse (the only civil crime on the list). But since the author of this Times news piece was clearly hung up on women’s ordination, she used this soap box to claim that the Vatican was “linking” the two. Which, of course, is 100% false. There are no links between the two anywhere in the document — they’re separate sections. This is just a lie. Again it would be like pointing to the fact that tax evasion and murder are felonies, and claiming the US is “linking” the two.

  • The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, an American priest with the Maryknoll religious order, said that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent him an excommunication letter within two months after he participated in a ceremony ordaining women, but that the Congregation had taken years while it considered the requests of bishops to defrock pedophiles.

    “What I did, supporting the ordination of women, they saw as a serious crime,” Father Bourgeois said. “But priests who were abusing children, they did not see as a crime. What does that say?”

First of all, Bourgeois isn’t a Maryknoll priest. He’s excommunicated.

Second of all, this line of argumentation needs to be stopped. Enemies of the Church claim that any time the Church handles anything It’s like this. The Church as a whole bungled the sex abuse scandal badly. Badly. She was caught off-guard, and a lot of people acted stupidly and/or evilly. Are we really going to point to every single time that the Church acts quickly and according to Her own canons, and say, “Ah, She must care about that more that the rape of children!” Are we going to require that the Church handle everything in the future as badly as the sex abuse scandal was handled in the past?

The fact is, the Church clearly said women’s ordination results in automatic excommunication. This arrogant former priest attempted women’s ordination anyways, and got exactly what he knew was coming to him. That has literally nothing to do with the sex abuse scandal. The only “linking” going on between the two is by Bourgeois and the New York Times… not the Vatican.

  • For more than two decades, polls have showed that large majorities of American Catholics favor allowing women to be ordained as priests. The latest poll of American Catholics by The New York Times and CBS News, released in May, showed that 59 percent favored ordaining women, while 33 percent were opposed.

This is the final paragraph. It ends with a silly argument: most people want women’s ordination. Fair enough: most Catholics are okay with torture, but I’m glad the Church isn’t, and I imagine the author is, too. We’re not Baptists who choose our tenets by popular vote.

But more fundamentally, this is a crystal clear attempt to try and manipulate outrage over the sex abuse scandal to strong-arm the Church into ordaining women, or at least being meeker about opposing the ordination of women. The paragraph has nothing to do with what the article claims to be about: “Vatican Issues New Rules on Responding to Sex Abuse.” This is an author, one Rachel Donadio, who has a serious bee in her bonnet on this issue, and is writing an editorial, instead of a news-piece. It’s terrible journalism.

1 Comment

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