The Church’s, and the Media’s, Response to the Graviora Delicta

On July 15, the Vatican released updated norms to handle what canon law calls “graviora delicta” or the “more serious crimes.” The publication of these new norms was occasioned above all because of calls to improve and expedite the Church’s procedures with regard to the clerical sexual abuse of minors. Since 2002, there has been particular law in the United States, passed by the American bishops in Dallas in 2002 and ratified by the Vatican, that has given stateside bishops many more potent and prompt procedures to discipline and remove clerics who have harmed the young. These new Vatican norms on the graviora delicta, while not identical to the U.S. Dallas norms, codified many similar improvements in the universal law of the Church.

The norms extended the “prescription” or statute of limitations for the abuse of a minor from ten to twenty years, until a minor alleging abuse turns 38, while renewing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) ability to waive the statute of limitations on a case-by-case basis. It treats the abuse of an adult without the use of reason as it does the abuse of a minor. It codifies the acquisition, possession, or distribution of pornography of children under 14 as a grave crime subject to the harshest penalties. It accelerates the process and simplifies the procedures for the formal removal of an abusive priest from the priesthood through a decree rather than a trial when the priest’s guilt is evident. It allows for Church tribunals to function more efficiently — and perhaps more effectively in trials of clerics accused of abuse — by allowing lay people to serve as judges and lawyers, provided that they have at least licenses (and not doctorates) in canon law. It gives the CDF the power to “sanate” or “clean up” any irregularities in the acts of diocesan tribunals, so that clerics guilty of the sexual abuse of minors will not get off on procedural technicalities. There was even the specification that the CDF now has the power — which formerly belonged only to the Pope — to judge cardinals, bishops and their equivalents. This means that the CDF not only can judge a prelate who has been guilty of the sexual abuse of minors, but also one, as canon law specifies, “who through culpable negligence illegitimately places or omits an act of ecclesiastical power, ministry or function with harm to another” (1389.2). The CDF now has the ability, in other words, to investigate and judge those bishops who may have culpably transferred priests they knew to be abusive or who failed to act when they became aware. These are all important, substantive changes.

The headlines on July 15-16 all should have read, “Pope Benedict continues his crackdown on abuse.” They didn’t, however, because many segments of the secular media chose to make the story about another update that was made to the Church’s general norms on handling the gravest ecclesiastical crimes: the Vatican codified in the new revision of norms what Pope Benedict had decreed in 2007, that anyone who attempts to confer sacred ordination on a woman, or any woman who attempts to receive sacred ordination, is automatically excommunicated. Several of the headlines and stories pretended that the Catholic Church was implying that those who attempt to ordain women or women attempt to become Catholic priests — it is impossible for a woman validly to be ordained a Catholic priest — are the equivalent of child molesters. The Church wasn’t saying anything of the sort, as any objective and honest reporter or news organization should have recognized and recognized readily and easily. There was a three-fold effect of the deceitful spin, however: first, it took the focus off of the major improvements the Church was making with regard to handling the cases of the sexual abuse of minors; second, it implied that the Church was trying to “change the subject” from abuse to something else; and third, it sought to ridicule the Church’s teachings on the inadmissibility of women to the sacred priesthood, suggesting that the Church is handling the issue of the ordination of woman just as poorly as in many places it handled the clerical sexual abuse of minors.

The first thing that must be said in response is what the Vatican was genuinely doing: it was updating the Church’s norms for all of the most serious ecclesiastical crimes. The section on woman’s ordination was just one of 31 articles, 142 out of 4475 words, or approximately three percent of the document. The document did not involve only updates on the sexual abuse of minors and the ordination of woman, but sections on all types of other grave ecclesiastical crimes, whether they be against the faith (heresy, apostasy and schism), against the practice of the sacraments, or against morals (like the sexual abuse of minors). The section on crimes against the sacraments, into which the article on women’s ordination was inserted, was particularly lengthy. It included crimes against the Holy Eucharist, like desecrating the sacred host or the precious blood, a priest’s celebrating Mass without faculties or attempting to “concelebrate a Mass” with members of ecclesial communities who are not validly ordained priests or do not have a valid Eucharistic rite. It also included crimes against the Sacrament of Penance, like a priest’s breaking the seal of confession, soliciting sexual sins from penitents, absolving partners in sexual sins, hearing confessions when one does not have the faculties to do so, or a lay person’s pretending to be a priest and hearing confessions.

The context of the document should have communicated to a sincere reporter or reader that the Church considers the sexual abuse of minors as seriously as it does the gravest crimes against the sacraments and the faith and moral life of the Church. That was the Vatican’s intention in publishing the new norms on the sexual abuse of minors within the context of the most serious ecclesiastical crimes. A far more accurate headline would have been that the Church equates the moral desecration of a child — who is by baptism a temple of the Holy Spirit — with the desecration of the Lord himself in Holy Communion. It is true that the small section on woman’s ordination was new to the document, but the reason for this is historical: in the past, when the Church was putting together the list of the gravest crimes against faith, morals and the sacraments, the attempted ordination of women in the Catholic Church was unheard of. It is something that has only recently become an issue and this was the first new compilation of the Church’s graviora delicta since Pope Benedict made his 2007 decree.

That said, those who charge that the Vatican should have released only the new norms of clergy sexual abuse and waited to include them in a later publication of revised graviora delicta have a point, at least in terms of prudence. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the 13th century that everything is received according to the conditions of the recipient. The vast majority of Catholics and others receive their news about the Church through the secular media, and many in the secular media have repeatedly demonstrated that they are disposed to sensationalize their coverage of the Church, to downplay the efforts and success the Church has been making with respect to the clerical sexual abuse of minors, and to be downright hostile to the Church’s teachings on sexuality, abortion, and the inadmissibility of women to be priests. It is good, on the one hand, that Church leaders do not teach on the basis of opinion polls and hypersensitivity to the moral values of those of the secular journalistic world. On the other hand, Christ does call the children of the light to be as savvy as the children of the world (Lk 16:8) and one lesson that the Church as a whole needs to learn from this episode is that we need to be more conscious of the prism through which many in the secular media are prone to distort what the Church says and does.

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About the Author

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations. He is the former pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

After receiving a biology degree from Harvard College, he studied for the priesthood in Maryland, Toronto and for several years in Rome. After being ordained a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Fall River by Bishop Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap. on June 26, 1999, he returned to Rome to complete graduate work in Moral Theology and Bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

Fr. Landry writes for many Catholic publications, including a weekly column for The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, for which he was the executive editor and editorial writer from 2005-2012. He regularly leads pilgrimages to Rome, the Holy Land, Christian Europe and other sacred destinations and preaches several retreats a year for priests, seminarians, religious and lay faithful. He speaks widely on the thought of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, especially John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. He was an on-site commentator for EWTN’s coverage of the 2013 papal conclave that elected Pope Francis, appears often on various Catholic radio programs, and is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.

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