Pope Secretly Approves Changes to Permit Quicker Trials, Dismissal of Priests

By John L. Allen Jr.
National Catholic Reporter [Rome]
Downloaded March 8, 2003

Legal changes approved in secret by the pope Feb. 7 will speed up trials of priests accused of sexual abuse of children, according to experts in canon law, and make it easier to remove priests from the clerical state. The changes thus deliver on a Vatican vow to make the trials, demanded by Rome as a matter of due process for accused priests, as efficient as possible in response to the urgency of the American crisis.

The changes allow deacons and lay people to serve on criminal tribunals in the Catholic church, even as judges. The changes cite Canon 1421, which stipulates that on a three-judge panel, one judge may be a lay person. 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 and have worked in tribunals for "a reasonable time." 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.

Most experts say they expect this power to be used only rarely, in especially notorious cases.

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.

Canon lawyers told NCR the changes should speed up church trials of accused priests and make it easier to dismiss a priest from the clerical state.

"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.

The changes were styled as revisions to the Vatican document Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, "Defense of the Most Holy Sacraments," a papal motu proprio dated April 30, 2001. It decreed new church law for handling six "grave delicts," or crimes, including the sexual abuse of minors. Those norms were secret until NCR published them in November 2002. (The norms may be found at line/documents/CDFnorms.htm)

Though not formally made part of the Feb. 7 changes, sources tell NCR that the congregation has expressed a preference that judges for sex abuse tribunals come from outside the diocese where possible, since local judges may feel pressured to please their bishop.

For the past two weeks, Fr. Charles J. Scicluna has led behind-closed-doors briefing sessions for some 200 American canon lawyers in Washington to explain these changes and to review the process to be followed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in handling sex abuse cases.

Scicluna, a Maltese priest described by sources as a widely respected canonist, recently joined the congregation from the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican's highest appeals court.

Scicluna's workshops were also led by Fr. Thomas Green of the canon law faculty at The Catholic University of America, an expert in procedural and penal law, and Oblate Fr. Francis Morrisey of the faculty of canon law at St. Paul University, Ottawa, Canada.

Sources tell NCR that to date, the anticipated flood of appeals for recourse, the technical canonical term for appeals to the Vatican for a penalty imposed by a bishop, in the wake of the American sex abuse crisis has not yet materialized.

After the American charter requiring priests to be permanently barred from ministry for even one act of sex abuse was adopted in November, estimates were that some 300 priests had been removed under its terms. Many of those priests were expected to appeal, generating fears of gridlock and lengthy delays.

To date, however, Vatican officials say only a small number of requests for recourse has been received, perhaps as few as 10. Yet that may be misleading, one official told NCR, because the adjudication of these cases is just beginning in the United States, and more requests for recourse may materialize in coming months.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.