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

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.


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