07/15/2010, 00.00
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Church tightens, clarifies rules on sex abuses by priests

Changes on ‘Rules on the Most Serious Crimes’ are made public today. They include faster procedures, a longer statute of limitations (20 years), treating as a crime the acquisition, possession or disclosure “in any way and by any means” of pornographic images of minors by priests. Changes are also made to the rules that govern crimes against the faith and the sacraments.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – The Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith announced today a major overhaul to the Normae de gravioribus delictis (Rules on the Most Serious Crimes), nine years after they were first issued in regards to sexual abuse by priests and religious. They include faster procedures, extending the statute of limitations to 20 years, defining as a crime the acquisition, possession or disclosure "in any way and by any means, of pornographic images of minors under the age of fourteen", adding the possibility of including lay people in Church courts, treating the abuses of mentally disabled people like those of minors.

One point that has not changed, despite the ongoing controversy, touches cooperation with the civil authorities.  “It must be borne in mind that the Norms (legal rules) being published today are part of the Penal Code of Canon Law, which is complete in itself and entirely distinct from the law of States,” said Fr Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office. Nevertheless, “it is important to take note that the Guide to Understanding Basic CDF Procedures concerning Sexual Abuse Allegations, published on the Holy See website, does indicate in its ‘Preliminary Procedures’ that the “Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed”.

“This means that in the practice suggested by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith it is necessary to comply with the requirements of law in the various countries, and to do so in good time, not during or subsequent to the canonical trial.”

The new rules made public today and approved by Benedict XVI on 21 May involve the “Most Serious Crimes”, and not exclusively sex crimes. They include crimes against the faith (heresy, apostasy and schism), whose jurisdiction normally falls to ordinaries, although the Congregation becomes competent in the case of an appeal; the malicious taping and disclosure of the sacramental confession about which a conviction has already been pronounced in 1988; and the attempt to ordain women, already subject to a sentence pronounced in 2007.

The changes made public today do not so much introduce new rules but rather modify those that exist by better organising the overall domain of the Rules on the “Most serious Crimes” that fall under the jurisdiction of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

Among the novelties, Fr Lombardi highlighted a few, most notably faster procedures, such as the possibility of bypassing  the normal "legal process" by proceeding through an "extrajudicial decree", or submitting (in particular circumstances) the most serious cases to the Holy Father to strip offenders of their clerical status.

Another change would simply streamline earlier problems by taking into account the Church’s evolving situation. For instance, presiding courts could include lay members as lawyers or prosecutors. Moreover, in order to perform such functions, the parties would no longer need to hold a PhD in Canon Law as long as their competence was proven, by the possession of a licentiate for example.

Another change worthy of note is the fact that the statute of limitations would come into effect after 20 rather than 10 years as it is today, with the possibility of further extension.

Similarly, the abuse of mentally disabled people is hereafter treated as equivalent of that of minors. A new category is also introduced, that of child pornography, which is defined as “the acquisition, possession or disclosure" by a member of the clergy, "in any way and by any means, of pornographic images of minors under the age of fourteen".

“Regulations concerning the secrecy of trials are maintained in order to safeguard the dignity of all the people involved.”

 “Today's publication of the Norms 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 rigour and transparency so as to respond fully to the just expectations of moral coherence and evangelical sanctity nourished by the faithful and by public opinion, and which the Holy Father has constantly reiterated.”

“Of course, many other measures and initiatives are required from the various ecclesiastical bodies. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is currently examining how to help the bishops of the world formulate and develop, coherently and effectively, the indications and guidelines necessary to face the problems of the sexual abuse of minors, either by members of the clergy or within the environment of activities and institutions connected with the Church, bearing in mind the situation and the problems of the societies in which they operate.”

“This will be another crucial step on the Church's journey as she translates into permanent practice and continuous awareness the fruits of the teachings and ideas that have matured over the course of the painful events of the "crisis" engendered by sexual abuse by members of the clergy.” (FP)

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