Problem Analysis

The Vatican's Response to Clerical Pedophiles

Mary Ellen Klawiter


The Problem

"Despite these efforts, the application of the policies adopted at the Plenary Assembly in Dallas can be the source of confusion and ambiguity, because the 'Norms' and 'Charter' contain provisions which in some aspects are difficult to reconcile with the universal law of the Church (Italics mine)."

The Situation

The major consideration of this analysis is the difference of opinion between a large population of American Catholics, including some members of the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) and the Vatican. The focus of the controversy is the withholding of the Vatican's recognitio or approval of the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" and the "Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests, Deacons or Other Church Personnel" which were approved on June 14, 2002 at the NCCB's Annual Meeting in Dallas, Texas and the subsequent restructuring of said documents in accord with the Vatican's demand, which were approved by the American bishops on November 13, 2002 in Washington, D.C. by a vote of 246 to 7 with 6 abstentions and are almost certain to receive the reconitio from Rome.

Because there is a plethora of technical, sloganistic jargon utilized throughout each of the four sets of texts, this paper will present some of the original documents for purposes of comparison and explanation, in the hope that this method will provide clarity in a situation which is extremely convoluted.

The initial situation centered around three specific recommendations of the USCCB that obviously have met with displeasure from Rome. They are:

1.                      Provisions for actions called for in the documents are "difficult to reconcile with the universal law of the church" and therefore, "can be a source of confusion and ambiguity".

2.                      The language used in the two documents needs re-examination because, "the experience of the last few months has shown that the terminology of these documents is at times vague or imprecise and therefore difficult to interpret".

3.                      The Vatican has indicated that it would like to see further specification of "the concrete manner in which the procedures outlined in the Norms and the Charter to be applied in conjunction with The Code of Canon Law and the Motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (on his own initiative, Protection of the Holiness of the Sacraments*).

The first dispute calls into question Article 2 of the first Charter which proposes a review board comprised predominantly but not exclusively of lay persons, including "at least" one priest and "at least" one member who "should have expertise in the treatment of the sexual abuse of minors". Rome also finds difficulties with Articles 4 and 5 of the Norms which are similar to the proposals in Article 2.

The revised edition of Article 2 of the Charter changes the review board's authority noting that it "functions as a confidential consultative body to the bishop/eparch". The June NCCB document empowered this review board with decision making; the wording of the November document recognizes that this assemblage is an advisory group to the bishop or eparch. Also, the new structure is to function as a confidential body whereas the initial body did not carry that specification.

The second area of controversy centers on the language of the Charter's Articles 1 and 5. It states the "Diocesan/eparchial policy will provide that for a single act of sexual abuse, (see Article 1 note*) of a minor -- past, present or future -- the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry" and " offending priest or deacon will be offered professional assistance for his own healing and well-being, as well as for the purpose of prevention". The footnote states that "Sexual abuse (includes) contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult. A child is abused whether or not this activity involves explicit force, whether or not it involves genital or physical contact, whether or not it is initiated by the child, and whether or not there is discernable harmful outcome".

(*This document does not seem to be available in English even on the Vatican website.)

The revised edition changes the footnote of sexual abuse as pertaining to both Articles 1 and 5. The new definition reads as follows:

The new definition derives the pedophile's entire culpability from transgressions against the Ten Commandments (Decalogue) and from offenses against Canon Law. There is no recognition of American or any national civil authority; in fact the document concludes that since civil laws are interpreted differently "these norms do not adopt any particular definition provided in civil law". The only recourse outside the above laws is consultation of the works of recognized moral theologians.

There are two differences in Article 5 between the new and revised documents. In the first edit, the removal of the cleric occurs when the preliminary investigation of the initial complaint so indicates, while the revision allows the investigation to occur "in harmony with canon law" and only then "if this investigation so indicates" would the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith be notified and the process be allowed to continue. The removal process of a cleric is a slower process in the second work and again, derives its authority exclusively from Church law and not from civil law.

The second change shifts from referring the alleged offender for "appropriate medical and psychological evaluation, so long as this does not interfere with the investigation by civil authorities" in the initial copy to wording in the latter document which reads that "the alleged offender may request to seek, or urged voluntarily to comply with appropriate medical and psychological evaluation, so long as this does not interfere with the investigation by civil authorities". The implication seems to give the choice of seeking medical attention or not to the accused offender.

The final disagreement is found in Article 5 of the Charter (see above paragraph) as well as Articles 6 to 12 of the Norms. These selections focus on the investigation, treatment, laicization and reporting to authorities of any cleric or church official accused of sexual abuse.

Changes abound in the wording between the two Norms documents, especially in Articles 6 to 12. Article 6 in the second document seeks to "protect the reputation of the accused during the investigation", while no mention is made in the original treatise.

In Article 8 A. of the revised work, it states, "Unless the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith having been notified, calls the case to itself because of special circumstances, it will direct the diocesan bishop/eparch to proceed" and then cites the "Procedural Norms" to be consulted. It continues that, "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 dispensation from the prescription, while indicating appropriate pastoral reasons". There seems to be much written on the meaning of "otherwise barred by prescription" and "dispensation from prescription" but none of the articles offer a real definition of the intention of this change.

Article 9 A. of the original June Norms states that "Diocesan/eparchial policy will provide that even for a single act of sexual abuse of a minor -- past, present or future -- the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry". Article 8 in the November version notes that "When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon is admitted or established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, if the case so warrants". There appears much greater latitude in the specifics of removal in the revised edition.

Article 9 of the current text reiterates the power of the bishop or eparch to remove the offending cleric from ministry but attaches footnote 6 to that mandate. Footnote 6 c. notes that "de iure (permission for priestly faculties) may be removed or restricted" whereas d. of the same note allows for bishops/eparchs to allow priests to "celebrate Eucharist with no member of the faithful present" for "circumstances surrounding a particular case" which "constitute the just and reasonable cause" for this exception. The original document makes no mention of exceptions.

Overall, the second set of documents moves the jurisdiction for and implementation of any punishment from a joint episcopal / civil undertaking to a function which is entirely "complementary to the universal law of the Church". The punishment appears to move from "even a single act" in the June Norms to "punishes the offender with penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants" in the November Norms. The latter document also proceeds to note exceptions regarding the offenders not being permitted to celebrate Mass, not being permitted to wear clerical garb or be laicized. The latter set alters lay power from decision making to consultative and from a more public forum to a confidential board.

The Players

There is a diffuse configuration of parties involved in this problem. For purposes of clarity and brevity, this analysis will limit itself to four major players. These include the Vatican, the American Catholic populous, both traditional and progressive members (including some Catholic bishops) and the victims of clerical sexual abuse.

The Vatican, or Holy See, includes the pope and the dicasteries of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for Clergy and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. Many of the American bishops would be aligned with this camp, since the cover up took place among their number. They have a major stake in this controversy.

The letter from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Prefect for the Congregation for Bishops was made public on October 18, 2002. Besides the aforementioned concerns, this correspondence proposed the establishment of a "mixed" commission, including episcopal members from the above dicasteries and four American bishops to restructure the original USCCB's proposals. The resultant document revisions were made by this "joint committee", approved by the NCCB on November 13, 2002 and some of the changes have been fleshed out in the above paragraphs. It seems certain that these new pronouncements will receive the recognitio of the Apostolic See, or the approval of the Vatican.

The second group is comprised of what, for a lack of better terms, would be conservative Catholics. They fall throughout the continuum of having major interests (those radically conservative) to seeing this scandal as a major black eye for the Church. Generally, they believe that reforms of Vatican II went too far and there are many among their number for whom a Roman collar signifies absolute power to which the lesser lay person must defer. These folks believe that the clergy are called to a higher order and therefore, in some respects, they are considered "above the law". Although these believers would argue that such possibilities of clerical sexual abuse may exist, they often would find ways to deny rationalize and even minimize the abuse.

The third segment consists of those who believe that pedophile clerics are not above the law and should be held both morally and criminally accountable. This assemblage again runs a continuum from those lukewarm to the injustice to those for whom this is a major crisis. These people would include more educated Catholics and those members who would be labeled more "liberal" or "progressive" in the Church. Interestingly enough, on this issue, some members of the NCCB were aligned with the more progressive believers before the November 13th vote. The remainder of Catholics would lie somewhere in between this continuum, although it appears that from the polls taken before and during the Dallas gathering, many of the remaining population would favor some form of punishment, including laicization for those clerics convicted of these crimes.

The final set encompasses those who are the victims of the sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy. This group includes both "practicing" as well as disenfranchised Catholics and they are real stakeholders in this crisis because they have been victimized and re victimized throughout the scandal. It also includes those who have been abused in the past as well as those who have suffered this harm recently. Some have brought charges against the religious who have abused them; others have spoken about it but not prosecuted their attackers; still others have not verbalized these incidents at all. There are numerous support groups which have grown in exposure and number since the scandals in Boston have come to light. The majority of the victims are male, but female victims are not uncommon. Most were abused as pre teens and teenagers, while fully trusting the abuser.

The Perspectives

The curia perceives this "scandal" on a number of levels. First, there is some regret that either these incidents have happened or that they have become public, or both. There is some agreement that this is not a good position in which the church finds herself, but the degree to which there is real culpability for these actions cannot be assessed adequately. There are apologies from Rome to the victims, but as one examines the controversy further, the possibility that these words of contrition may be nothing more than lip service is all too real. The Vatican transformed the focal point of the controversy from the healing of the victims to the need to clarify terms and the resultant document does neither.

An underlying perspective seems to show a twofold viewpoint. One criteria highlights the need for male priests and the pope's insistence that laicization is immoral. The other image envisions the church as under attack from American Catholics, even in some instances from the U.S. bishops. This is seen in the insistence on the return to the "universal law of the Church" in the revised texts.

The conservative camp of American Catholics would relate to this "attack" on the curia and the church. Rome's criteria are their criteria. This group would defend absolutely the need for "clarification" of the June NCCB's Charter and Norms sought by Rome's letter and would uphold the new documents as divinely inspired. They would rather "fight than switch"; their allegiance is solely to the moral judgment of the curia. Underlying perceptions from this group run from sympathy for the victims while denying much culpability on the part of the abusers to a mindset that would blame the evils of the breakdown of society, not any specific cleric for this situation.

The observations of progressive Catholics find difficulty in the initial cover up by dioceses and archdioceses, specifically in moving guilty priests to one person parishes and covering up these abuses and illnesses thus allowing these pedophiles to continue to inflict serious harm on innocent children. Liberal persons of faith see the Vatican in a less positive light, since their criteria often do not match what is decreed from Rome. They are comfortable with the pluralism within the church and view the October and successive editing in the November directive as a means for the curia to retrieve their power at any cost. To them, the October 18 refusal from Rome and the November edits from the Vatican congregations reinforce and remind all people of the authoritarian entitlements of the hierarchy even if, in this case, it happens at the expense of harming innocent children.

The bishops, by writing the Norms and Charter realize that harm has been done, some recognize their part in it and they as a group sought to do something positive and moral in response to it. As a result of the congregations' October response to their proposals, they were forced to acquiesce to Rome's demands. For some bishops who have spoken out, they must see this message from Rome as an affront to justice and a betrayal of their U.S. leadership. Their criteria presently are at odds with Rome's; this is a somewhat unusual hole in the moral fabric upheld by the Vatican. Some episcopal vicars perceive the letter as something they must obey. They may feel guilt for having been part of this challenge to Rome's moral authority. Other U.S. prelates find themselves somewhere in the continuum between disenfranchised seekers of gospel justice and obedient servants of the Church.

The victims' view is one of betrayal raised exponentially. First they have been harmed by the very people whose job it is to heal; they were further alienated by the bishop's attempts to conceal these crimes. Now, they had to endure the restructuring of the initial document which was the first step toward some real culpability on the part of the church. They must see this last move by the Vatican as particularly hurtful since the American bishops' work actually provided a glimmer of hope for them. The criteria which shape their viewpoint focus on justice for those guilty of the abuse and healing the scars of those actions. To do any less, for them, is immoral. They cannot reconcile the Vatican moral standpoint with the realities of this injustice. "American Catholics have looked to their bishops for pastoral leadership in a time of great crisis and scandal. It is deeply troubling that the Vatican has concluded that the judgment of those closest to the problem and to the 64 million members of the U.S. Catholic community is so severely flawed," said Jim Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, an organization begun in response to the Boston pedophile accusations and subsequent cover up scandal.

The Concerns

There is no doubt that Rome feels threatened. They see themselves as the stakeholders and are worried that the fabric of their power is being torn from seam to seam with this "scandal". The curia is extremely apprehensive to share any of that authority, especially with lay persons. Their intrinsic values derived from divine law prevent them from seeing the abuse of innocent children as anything other than a blow to their hierarchical configuration. They are ready to splinter further an already disjointed church to insure that their structure remains intact. Rome wants things the way they used to be, when people were uneducated or undereducated and independent thought was extremely uncommon. They are a Temple institution and they are afraid because they see the pluralism of the American church as a direct challenge to their perceived moral authority. They want the information confidential to keep these abuses out of sight of their faithful.

The conservative assemblage feels similarly. They share the same intrinsic values as the members of the curia; to them, the Vatican speaks for God and they unquestioningly must obey. An Eternal Word Television Network (a mouthpiece of conservative American Catholics) article noted that "Canon-law experts in Rome viewed the American bishops' policy as defective because the proposed norms did not provide 'due process' safeguards for priests who are accused of sexual misconduct. Vatican experts also complained that the Dallas policy used a vague and imprecise definition of sexual abuse." One may note that there is no mention of the real victims in this "report", but that it may "victimize" a handful of priests who may be accused unjustly. These believers are concerned that this truth was presented to them as "defective" by Rome. They are afraid that some of the very people they are supposed to obey, namely the U.S. bishops, have erred through this proposal. These devotees to a pre Vatican II viewpoint will adhere to the pronouncements from Rome; for them to do any less would be moral hari-kari.

The progressive camp's concern centers on the curia's overwhelming need to continue as the church's definitive and exclusive moral authority to such a degree that they are willing to become the antithesis of the moral values they are supposed to uphold. The points of concern raised by the Vatican illustrate the need for concern from this community. First, Rome's appeal to Canon Law and the "universal law of the Church" creates an image which is not a pretty picture for this assemblage. They, like Rev. John Beal, would argue that "The common cause of both laity and priests in the present crisis consists not only in fostering a safe environment for children by punishing malefactors, but in bringing accountability and measured restraint to ecclesial governance".

The liberal thinkers see blockades being erected at almost every turn by the Vatican. The curia's blatant secrecy about this new mixed commission and the overall process; their accusation of the vague terms of the bishop's proposals which "can be a source of confusion and ambiguity" from one of the foremost clients of sloganistic and technical language; their readiness to change the power of the laity on the review boards; their claim that "vague or imprecise and therefore difficult to interpret" language is used to define sexual abuse when the footnote in Article 5 is one of the most precise and exact pieces of either documents (see page 2, paragraph 2) and their edited footnote on the terms which further clouds the definition by appealing only to the Decalogue and canon law; their reticence to allow non-ecclesial trials; their unwillingness to allow the names of abusers to be made public and their aversion to laicize convicted clerics and in certain circumstances allowing them to celebrate Eucharist and continue to don Roman collars illustrates to this educated community a real reluctance to recognize the real victims in this process in favor of preserving the hierarchy. For many of these progressive members of the Church, this is an intrinsic value because it flies in the face of gospel values; specifically as it relates to the injustice done to the victims.

The victims who continue in the Church are full of further anger at the walls being erected in the name of religious values while the justice accorded to them quietly is being undermined. It further cheapens the awful experiences they received at the hands of people they were taught to trust and makes it extremely difficult for them to reconcile their search for understanding and justice with the Vatican's inability to afford them that consideration. The victim's networks, such as Voice of the Faithful and SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests), reiterate the cries of the progressive segment acknowledging a more painful and subjective feel to the controversy. In response to the November vote on the revised documents, Barbara Blaine, president of SNAP recognized that "Bishops have voted to give themselves more power and backtracked from their earlier promises". The Voice of the Faithful noted that the new plan created "a cumbersome procedure" which overlooks "the spiritual and pastoral needs of the survivors". Their values obviously are intrinsic; they have been victimized by betrayal, hurt and abused and their sense of civil justice and gospel justice has been mangled by their experiences.

Victims outside of the Church, or presently outside any organized religion structures obviously are concerned and hurt by the entire response from Rome, although since they previously have chosen other belief structures, the impact may be somewhat less traumatic on these wounded souls.

The Possible Changes

The Vatican, for their part, has stipulated their changes through the denial of the recognitio and the promulgation of the revised Norms and Charter. The topics of concerned, which have been discussed in the preceding paragraphs, highlight the curia's desire to take power back utilizing the foundational slogans of "the universal law of the Church" and "canon law". The creation of these slogans and other similarly vague terms such as "if the case warrants", "a dispensation from the prescription" and "circumstances surrounding a particular case" underscores the intention of the Vatican to alter in a definitive manner the more strongly worded, more compassionate, victim centered and more all encompassing initial June documents.

Can these changes found within the second documents fail? To members of the hierarchy and the members of the conservative camp, they can't. The changes purposely were instituted with the appeal to the Temple image of moral absolutes which have trickled down from the hierarchy for hundreds and hundreds of years. The slogans radically transformed the work of the NCCB; something which does not occur everyday. The edits run contrary to the compassion of Jesus, which is the reason for the existence of the very institution of the Church. The only remaining question is whether there is sincerity within the Vatican walls in appealing to these "universal laws" (do they believe them) or whether the Vatican's deference to this slogan and the corresponding rewording in the documents becomes the best means to abdicate the majority of the responsibility they share in the scandal.

The NCCB's original documents could fail because it did reveal real possibilities. They had meat. There were real consequences. They were messy, or as messy as the Catholic hierarchy gets. For the progressive group as well as among survivors, there was a glimmer of some real hope that something would actually be accomplished and that finally hierarchical rhetoric had taken a back seat to compassion and justice. In the eyes of those abused and those who embrace gospel values, when the edited slogans document replaced some actual reform measures, the Vatican failed. They chose pseudo morality over real morality.

The technical "Churchy" language spread throughout both sets of documents makes it very difficult to isolate specific instances of technical language. Almost all Church documents, even those translated into English, are written in very intricate, elaborate and sloganistic terms often in an effort to couch the real meanings when read by the untrained observer. The Vatican has proposed the "confidential" review boards for much the same reason. Through all of the technical jargon, the first documents were clearer and more direct and that obviously is in part why they were changed.

Can Anything Be Done?

Members of SNAP and The Voice of the Faithful have suggested that parishioners protest from their pocketbooks and withhold money from Church collections. A very sound idea, except that often the Church community to which one belongs does works for justice and funds are naturally given to the poor, homeless and oppressed creating a difficult moral challenge.

Writing your favorite bishop generally is not feasible, since it will fall on deaf ears as the final November vote underscores. Short of protesting these changes en masse or taking the major leap to form the American Catholic Church, which seems very unlikely, there really is little that can be done unless the persons in the pew really begin to care about the institution. In today's climate, that seems to be truer of those who feel the need to return to pre-Vatican II values. "Pray, pay and obey" was jargon that belonged to the '50's Catholics; however, fifty years later, it is very much in evidence in the believers nearer the center of the continuum and that lack of interest may ultimately be the demise for the institution.

Surely, more victims have or will leave the Church as a result of the changes and perhaps greater numbers of progressive Catholics will draw the line at this latest injustice and join the ranks of other Christian denominations.

The conservative camp and the Vatican as well as many of the American hierarchy are fine with the present revised documents and they would be quite happy to keep it buried from this point forward.

Will Anything Be Done?

The Vatican has spoken from the position of their power given to them from the keys of Peter. They obviously are not moving; there is no desire on their part to defer to anyone or anything, as they attempt to hold together a continually splintering Church. Creating the schismatic American Catholic Church, as stated previously, is unlikely and it's doubtful that anything really will be done. The only hope for any kind of change lies with the bishops who will have some leverage in the individual pedophile cases; they can strive to make the initial words of healing in the documents a reality. Unfortunately, these are some of the very men who were involved in the cover ups of these cases in the first place.

The Vatican will remain as they have, in their Temple model, indifferent to the pluralism of the Western world and the evolution in education of many among their number. The conservative Catholics will continue to live in denial as well. The progressive camp will feel further alienated and angry while the victims will feel victimized yet again. The gospel message of Christ will need to defer to the divine law created by man. It gives one reason to pause.

Who Gains & Who Loses?

The curia and hierarchy patch up another perceived hole in their structure. At this juncture, they seem, along with their staunch supporters, to be the ones to benefit. They get to take their marbles and go home and return to business as usual. The curia wins, or so they think. In reality, they've lost credibility that may have been gained by accepting the NCCB's original documents.

One could argue that the liberal Catholics win too, since they have one more windmill at which to thrust their lances. Perhaps, but ultimately, this progressive sect was not able to change policy. Also, from their perspective, this obvious division between moral and pseudo moral values places them in a Church in which they would rather not find themselves.

Obviously, the people who suffer the greatest loss are the survivors. They have been further victimized and insulted by the withholding of the recognitio and the subsequent sloganistic treatise intent on exploiting the "universal law of the Church" as the very loophole to relieve the hierarchy of their responsibility in this scandal.


There are major problems within the institution of the Catholic Church, foremost being the hierarchy's reluctance to allow the compassion of Jesus or any other authority to compete with their stronghold on moral order. They are afraid, because they realize the splintering of their institution is occurring; why else would the recognitio be denied for a document that, despite its flaws, attempted to heal and not simply sweep further abuses under the rug? The Church today numbers better educated and more pluralistically aware members among her number than has been the case throughout her history. Because of this, there has been major flux within the Church in recent years and her Protestant siblings now are welcoming many former Catholics. Despite a present resurgence of a pre-Vatican II morality, ultimately there seems to be only two options available: to continue the hierarchical jargon, denials and pseudo deference to moral absolutes with an ever smaller group of semi fanatics leading to the institution's very probable demise or realize that there is worth in such values as pluralism and compassion and justice and that these values need not be in conflict with Christian morality. A personal, loving, forgiving God enhancing the detached, judgmental universal law is not a bad thing, if not simply for the sake of the faithful, for the continuance (in a different form, of course) of the hierarchy.