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Reflections on the New Sex-Abuse Norms

Last week, Pope Francis issued new canonical norms to deal with the plague of the sexual abuse of minors and adults by clerics and religious. His motu proprio “You are the light of the World” (Vos estis lux mundi) establishes new provisions to deal with the questions of how crimes against the Sixth Commandment are to be reported to Church authorities, and what is to be done when the person accused is a bishop.

These norms were issued without prior publicity and would have benefitted from a wider consultation during the drafting stage. Canonist Edward Peters identifies problems with the document, beginning with the fact that it is not published in Latin, but only in Italian and in translations based on the Italian. This creates serious problems of interpretation. When there is no Latin text, the terminology cannot be readily compared and harmonized with the Code of Canon Law and other canonical texts in Latin. Standard legal usage is vital for the consistent application of the law. That is missing here.

Also missing is any mention of the penalties that would be incurred by anyone found guilty of violating these new norms. The procedures outlined in articles 12-19 for investigating reports of episcopal crimes make no reference to canons 1717ff that regulate how penal processes are to be initiated and carried out. That is a serious deficiency.

The most noteworthy provision concerns the newly specified episcopal canonical offense “consisting of actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations, whether administrative or penal, against a cleric or a religious” accused of the following canonical crimes: “forcing someone, by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts; performing sexual acts with a minor or a vulnerable person; the production, exhibition, possession or distribution, including by electronic means, of child pornography, as well as by the recruitment of or inducement of a minor or a vulnerable person to participate in pornographic exhibitions.” (Article 1)

What is most significant is the phrase “actions or omissions.” Bishops are now subject to canonical discipline if they either take steps to interfere with or avoid civil or canonical investigations, or simply omit initiating a canonical investigation when they have received a report of a crime of sexual abuse by a cleric or religious.

This provision can be seen as a specification of the existing canonical duties of bishops as set forth, for example, in canons 384 (“he is to ensure that they [priests] fulfill the obligations proper to their state”) and 392 (“he is bound to foster the discipline which is common to the whole Church, and so press for the observance of all ecclesiastical laws.”)

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