The Latest Revisions to the "Charter and Norms"
1. The results of the special mixed committee of U.S. and Vatican bishops have been released to the public. These revised norms will now be placed before the Body of Bishops at their November meeting for debate and vote. This stage is the latest in the process initiated in June at the bishops’ Dallas meeting.
2. The document released is written in ecclesiastical language which will be difficult if not impossible for most people to totally comprehend. It uses canonical terms which are unfamiliar to most people in and outside the church. This is not unusual since most Vatican documents arrive written in such language and are passed through the U.S. Bishops conference on to the public. The churchmen whose lives are caught up in the ecclesiastical administrative world often forget that the vast majority on the outside do not understand the language much less the politics behind it.
3. The revisions are a response to voiced concerns for the due process of law which is a right guaranteed to all by the canonical system. In this case it is noteworthy that lay people and priests expressed serious concern for the lack of due process. However none of these same groups, including (for instance) the National Federation of Priests Councils, the Canon Law Society of America, various diocesan presbyteral senates, the Knights of Columbus and others ever made any public statements either in support of the victims/survivors of Catholic clergy sexual abuse nor did any speak out against the consistent lack of due process in relation to complaints filed by victims over the past several decades.
4. These norms, if approved by the Bishops at their November meeting, will become particular law for the Catholic dioceses in the United States. Particular legislation for the U.S. to combat this extremely serious problem, could have been taken 17 years ago when it was first recommended. At that time the Bishops’ Conference publicly stated that each diocese was independent and that the conference had no power to legislate for individual dioceses. It has been obviously disastrous to the church but especially to thousands of victims that the Bishops of this country waited so long to take the action they knew they could have resorted to when they were first clearly warned of the impending disaster many years ago. This being said, the fact that sexual abuse of such proportions had to be disclosed to the public before that degree of pressure prompted the bishops to begin to act, may well be indicative of the mediocre level of commitment to seeing that these norms are consistently fulfilled to the benefit of victims and survivors.
5. What the Norms Say
6. The norms contain several positive improvements:
7. Problem Areas
b. The Review Boards. The Vatican was fearful
that the lay review boards would have even an appearance of power. Their
(Vatican officials) primary concern was not the of the legal or spiritual
welfare victims but the security of hierarchical power. The review boards
are only consultative. The norms state that boards must be “at
least five persons of outstanding integrity and good judgment in full
communion with the Church.” By demanding that members be practicing
Catholics the norms set up the real possibility that the members can be
controlled by the bishop who appointed them and at whose pleasure they
serve. Thus the norms have effectively neutralized any possibility that
the review boards will be truly effective. Any that are will be so by
exception and because the local bishop has the integrity of putting the
notion of justice and pastoral sensitivity before the retention of power.
There is no reason why members must be Catholics. This is not a doctrinal
issue but a matter of criminal actions that are sanctioned in both civil
and canon law. Religious adherence has nothing to do with determining
the veracity of an offense.
d. Prescription – The Statute of Limitations.
“Prescription” refers to the statute of limitations which
for the U.S. is 10 years past majority (18 yrs of age.) The norms re-instate
the Statute for all cases but say that in some cases the local bishop
can ask that it be waived or dispensed from: “If the case would
otherwise be barred by prescription, because sexual abuse of a minor is
a grave offense, the bishop/eparch shall apply to the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith for a derogation from the prescription, while
indicating appropriate pastoral reasons.”
The norms show no evidence that survivors were consulted for any meaningful input at any stage of the process. This is a crucial point. The survivors are aware as no other group is of the destructive effects of the traditional manner of handling abuse accusations. Their reflections, observations and critiques have been labeled as “subjective” by defenders of the clerical/hierarchical establishment and status quo. Yet this whole matter is about restoring justice and spiritual well-being to victims and survivors and ensuring that a similar travesty of justice not happen in the present or future. Yet the institutional church has, in spite of token appearances by and consultations with survivors, consistently eliminated them from any meaningful participation in this process.
Most important, the norms sidestep consistent, objective and uniform justice for all by leaving open the possibility that clerics who have sexually abused in the past can continue to function and never be brought to justice simply because the offense happened years ago. The accused cleric may well have refrained from successive abuse and may have reformed his life BUT the victims continue to suffer the profound effects of abuse.
Most if not all professions have internal norms for professional conduct and processes whereby members who violate these norms are investigated and either exonerated or punished. Canon Law is not a “separate and above” legal system but a set of internal norms. Criminal behavior must be investigated by civil authorities. Church authorities lack both the professional competence to investigate complex issues such as sexual abuse but even more important, they have shown by past actions that they lack the integrity to carry out such investigations with accuracy and objectivity.
What will happen next? The Vatican and U.S. bishops may think that the
approval of these norms at the November US Bishops’ meeting with
bring closure to this phase of the sexual abuse problem. This is delusional.
The process whereby the norms came into being and the norms themselves
guarantee that the survivors, their supporters and lay people and concerned
clergy in general will continue to demand credible accountability. As
long as the issue remains heavily clericalized it will fall prey to the
destructive force of clericalism. The bishops still have made no moves
to look into their own responsibility for the entire debacle. The repeated
apologies have nothing to do with an objective, probing and complete study
of why the exercise of episcopal authority has allowed thousands of men
and women in our church to have their bodies and souls raped and brutalized
by clerics. Until this happens the matter will never be anything but an
ever growing cancer in the universal church.
Original material copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
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