The Word from Rome
[Scicluna's Briefing Sessions]
From “Blocking war remains high on Vatican to-do list; An interview
with Cardinal Lopez Trujillo”
By John L. Allen, Jr.
National Catholic Reporter
February 28, 2003
For the past two weeks, Fr. Charles Scicluna of the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith has conducted two behind-closed-doors briefing
sessions for canon lawyers in the United States on cases involving charges
of sexual abuse of children by priests. Scicluna crossed the ocean to
explain how the tribunals created in the congregation to deal with these
cases will work.
Scicluna, who is Maltese, was joined in leading the sessions by two distinguished
North American canonists: Fr. Thomas Green of the Catholic University
of America, an expert in procedural and penal law, and Oblate Fr. Francis
Morrisey of St. Paul University, Ottawa, Canada.
The centerpiece of Scicluna’s agenda was to explain a set of changes
made in secret by the pope Feb. 7 to the church’s norms on sex abuse
cases, issued on April 30, 2001, in the motu proprio called Sacramentorum
sanctitatis tutela, “Defense of the Most Holy Sacraments.”
Those norms were secret until NCR published them in November 2002. (The
norms may be found at www.natcath.org/NCR_Online/documents/CDFnorms.htm).
The changes allow deacons and lay people to serve on criminal tribunals
in the Catholic Church, even as judges. Under rules decreed by the pope
in April 2001, those roles had been restricted to priests. The changes
also drop the requirement that tribunal members must have a doctorate
in canon law, insisting only that they hold the lesser degree of a licentiate.
Both moves should expand the pool of judges and lawyers and hence make
it easier to form tribunals.
In what experts say is a notable departure from canonical tradition, the
changes also give the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the
Vatican office now charged with adjudicating sex abuse cases, the power
in “clear and grave” situations to dismiss someone from the
priesthood without a trial. That administrative power had heretofore belonged
only to the pope himself.
The congregation has also acquired the power to “sanate,”
meaning clean up, procedural irregularities in the acts of a local tribunal.
That means that if a case comes to Rome on appeal on procedural grounds,
the problem can be resolved without remanding the case for a new trial.
The changes permit a recourse, or appeal, against decisions of the congregation
only to the regular Wednesday assembly of cardinal members of the congregation.
All other appeals are excluded, meaning that the congregation’s
decisions are final.
All told, canon lawyers told NCR, the changes should speed up church trials
of accused priests.
“These changes read like they were done by someone who deeply understands
the practical realities of how the system works,” one canonical
expert in Rome said.
The promise of swift action was implicit in the Vatican’s reaction
to the proposed sex abuse norms adopted by the U.S. bishops in Dallas
in June 2002. Those norms envisioned removing priests through a bishop’s
administrative authority. The Vatican insisted instead that accused priests
have the right to a trial, but vowed to make sure that the process moves
as swiftly as possible.
On another matter, a Vatican official told NCR this week that the expected
flood of requests for recourse, the technical canonical term for appeal,
from disciplinary measures under the new sex abuse norms has yet to materialize.
Some 300 priests so far have been removed from ministry under the program
the U.S. bishops finalized in Washington in November, and some canonists
worried that many, if not most, would request recourse, placing an enormous
strain on the Vatican’s judicial resources. So far, however, it
hasn’t happened; the actual number of appeals is closer to 10 than
100, the official said.
That number may yet rise, however, as judicial tribunals in the United
States begin to hear these cases and to render their decisions.