The Latest Revisions to the "Charter and Norms"
By Thomas Doyle, O.P., J.C.D.
November 5, 2002
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’
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
5. What the Norms Say
The norms are an amplification of the canons of the Code which are to
be applied in cases of alleged commission of canonical crimes. The Code
lays out the steps for a preliminary investigation of a report followed
by the possibility of either administrative or judicial procedures if
it appears that there is substance to the accusation. This means the following:
a. The bishop is mandated to see that a documented investigation is carried
out into any report made to him from any source whether it is anonymous
b. The investigation is to be sensitive that reputations are not damaged
but it is not a secret investigation.
c. If the bishop believes that the report has the semblance of credibility
he then proceeds to the next step which is determining the innocence or
guilt of the accused.
d. The bishop may choose to follow an administrative procedure which basically
means that he can impose a limited penalty, with the accused having rights
to an appeal process. This is a short procedure and does not involve any
e. If the case is serious the bishop can hand it over the a tribunal of
judges who will hear the case according to canonical procedures.
f. The only way that the penalty of permanent suspension or laicization
can be imposed is by way of a judicial trial. The bishop cannot use an
administrative procedure to impose such permanent penalties.
g. Either way, administrative or judicial (trial), the accused has a right
of appeal that can extend to the Vatican.
The norms also amplify somewhat certain aspects of the regular procedural
norms or canons found in the Code.
6. The norms contain several positive improvements:
a. The Preamble states that the penalties can include laicization.
It also attempts to give a more detailed explanation or definition of
sexual abuse. The problem is that in trying to define sex abuse the document
uses a particular ecclesiastical term that is only confusing and open
to further subjective interpretation: “Thus, the norm to be
considered in assessing an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor is whether
conduct or interaction with a minor qualifies as an external, objectively
grave violation of the sixth Commandment A canonical offence
against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue (c. 1395, §2) need
not be a complete act of intercourse. Nor, to be objectively grave, does
an act need to involve force, physical contact, or a discernible harmful
outcome.” This is a bit clearer than before but the reference
to the sixth commandment is too vague.
b. Full compliance is mandated.
c. Each diocese must have a person to coordinate pastoral care for victims
and each diocese must have a review board. These measures are minimal
but at least they are mentioned in the norms. Much more attention should
have been given to the pastoral care of the victims. This is a glaring
weakness in the overall charter and norms. The attention is drawn to the
rights of the accused and the care of victims seems to be almost a passing
concern. The Vatican could have signaled a return to some minimal measure
of episcopal integrity by mandating that individual bishops extend personal
and individual pastoral care to victims.
d. The eighth norm repeats the assurance that clerics who are proven to
be offenders, even single offenders, will be removed from ministry.
e. The norms state that a cleric proven to have been an abuser will not
be transferred from place to place or country to country. This norms almost
seems superfluous but nevertheless is included as a stark reminder of
the very actions that have been at the root of the overall problem.
7. Problem Areas
The norms contain several serious problem areas that will cause continued
difficulties. These areas have been the subject of public criticism by
SNAP, other victims and the press, and rightly so.
a. An overall serious problem is that the process remains totally
controlled by the bishops. There is no room for any decisive
participation by lay people. The bishops proved themselves incapable of
dealing with the problem of sexual abuse for centuries. These norms return
total control to them along with glaring loopholes that can possibly allow
proven sexual offenders to either return to or continue in ministry. The
loopholes allow for the continuation of the pathological secrecy that
was so instrumental in destroying the bishops’ and credibility.
In short, clericalism has prevailed and has the potential of being as
destructive through these norms as it was in the previous state.
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.
c. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Every case is to be initially referred to the CDF which will determine
whether or not it will be processed on the local diocesan level or by
the Vatican congregation. This is a most unfortunate restatement of the
Vatican document that was issued last year. This means that the Vatican
retains to power to control the process, to re-impose the shroud of pathological
secrecy on cases and to apply its own procedural laws. Consistent past
experiences with persons investigated by this congregation has shown that
it has little respect for the rights of the accused. Its processes have
been secretive, brutal and shown little evidence of having objective truth
as their goal. This norm alone is highly problematic and should strike
fear in the hearts of accused and survivors alike. Although U.S. bishops
have stated that reservation of cases to the CDF would probably be rare,
experience has taught that such assurances mean little if anything. The
Vatican has clearly demonstrated its lack of concern for and sensitivity
to victims and surviviors. It has also made it quite clear that there
is a smoldering hostility towards the U.S. civil law demands for accountability
and similar hostility towards the U.S. media. The Vatican appears to believe
that the clergy and hierarchy are somehow above civil laws which is
clearly not the case. Repeated statements by Vatican officials and
other high ranking ecclesiastics makes it quite clear that they are primarily
concerned about shoring up their power and not concerned about the massive
devastation to victims by clergy abuse.
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.”
There are serious problems with this:
1. Canon Law demands that the official record of judicial criminal cases
be kept for 10 years after a case has been finished or until the accused
dies. The imposition of the Statute leaves the bishops a loophole whereby
they can destroy any records of accusations or cases that are outside
2. The bishop retains control: he can decide subjectively whether or not
to ask for a waiver from the Statute. There is no assurance that this
provision would be followed with any degree of integrity. The bishops
had control in the past and the process was consistently violated to their
benefit and to the detriment of the victims. This norms allows for a continuation
of such abuse.
e. Reporting Obligations. The revised norm significantly
watered down the comparable norm proposed by the bishops: “The
diocese/eparchy will comply with all applicable civil laws with respect
to the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities
and will cooperate in their investigation.” The norms says
that the civil laws that are applicable” will be complied
with which means that this norm would apply only in those States that
mandate the clergy as reporters of sexual or other forms of child abuse.
In any case, sexual abuse of a person is a felony crime. The norm should
have demanded that in all cases of alleged sexual abuse the matter be
turned over to the civil law enforcement authorities. This norm reflects
the Vatican officials’ skewed opinion that bishops not be obliged
to report clerics who have engaged in criminal activity. One Vatican official
alluded to a violation of the paternal relationship that exists between
a priest and his bishop. This paternal relationship however, is no eschews
to allow the destruction of souls through clergy sexual abuse.
f. Norm 9. Norm 9 is confusing and contradictory.
In spite of the fact that the norms in general implicitly state that Canon
Law, leading to an administrative or judicial process be followed, this
norm refers to the bishop’s power to resolve a case using the administrative
procedure. However even then, the bishop cannot impose a permanent suspension
nor can he issue a decree of laicization. It is unclear if this norm has
anything more than rhetorical purpose.
The revisions are mixed but on balance they appear to be a significant
step backward in what many have hoped would be a gradual path toward hierarchical
accountability. The process is almost totally clericalized. The lay review
boards have no decisive power and the potential exists to completely neutralize
them. The tribunal process, if followed, leaves room for the possibility
of one lay judge to be appointed to a three judge tribunal to try a case.
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.
The norms almost promise that there will be a continuation of the pathological
secrecy that has been so instrumental in bring the institution to its
knees. It is this secrecy that helps to destroy any hope of returning
the U.S. and Vatican episcopacy to any semblance of credibility.
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
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.
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