Vatican City, Nov 11, 2014 / 11:10 am
Pope Francis established on Tuesday a new judicial body within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with responsibility for dealing with clerical sex abuse, thus confirming the Holy See's continuing response to the crisis.
The new body, which is known as a college and which goes into effect Nov. 11, was established "due to the number of appeals and the need to guarantee that they are examined more rapidly and following detailed reflection."
The decision was taken by Pope Francis during a Nov. 3 audience with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, and issued in a rescript.
The department will be composed of seven members appointed by the Pope from among cardinals and bishops, and will be entrusted with examining appeals by clergy accused of commiting 'delicta graviora', or 'more grave crimes', in order to lighten the work of the ordinary session of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The department's members do not have to be members of the congregation.
The ordinary session is the plenary meeting of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and it meets once a month, on Wednesday – hence the name of 'feria quarta' to label the meeting, 'feria quarta' being the Latin name for Wednesday.
According to Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See press office, the "feria quarta had to examine 4-5 appeals a month, of priests who were deemed to have been wrongly accused" of sex abuse.
"The Pope's decision has been welcomed, and has been considered a good solution in order to facilitate the Congregation's work and avoid an accumulation of appeals to be processed," explained Fr. Lombardi.
The new commission will examine solely the appeals of clergy accused of 'delicta graviora'.
'Delicta graviora' are the most serious crimes in the Church, and most notably include offenses against morality: the sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric, or the acquisition, possession, or distribution of child pornography by a cleric.
Aside from sexual abuse of minors, 'delicta graviora' include crimes against the sacraments – including those against Eucharist, such as profaning a consecrated Host; against Confession, such as violating the seal; and against Holy Orders, such as the attempted ordination of a woman.
At the moment, only one member of the new college has been appointed: Archbishop José Mollaghan was on May 19 appointed a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to be responsible for a commission to deal with delicta graviora which was then still being established.
It is yet to be known how the new office will work, how often it will meet, and if its judgement on each case will be always accepted by the feria quarta or if the feria quarta will be able to overturn the college's judgements.
The rescript simply reads that the work of the commission will juxtapose the work of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which will maintain its competences.
It should be up to the congregation itself to entrust the new office with a certain numbers of appeals which are usually examined during the ordinary session.
However, when a bishop is accused of graviora delicta, his case will be examined by the whole body of members of the congregation – the ordinary session – which may also examine other specific cases upon papal request, and/or examine cases referred to it by the newly created college, according to the rescript.
The rescript also requires the commission to periodically inform the ordinary session of its decisions; there may be other special provisions, but these have not yet been made official.
Fr. Lombardi stressed that "there is no other news than the rescript," and that "we will be able to know about the college's procedures and competencies once the Pope will appoint the members of the college and the college will give itself an internal regulation."
"Examining the appeals is challenging, especially when the appeals are about the abuse by clergy of minors, and processing all the cases would absorb the whole work of the 'feria quarta'", since "many members of the clergy appeal against their sentence for abuse," Fr. Lombardi underscored.
Efforts to combat clerical sex abuse began in earnest in 1988, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent a letter to St. John Paul II shedding light on how the procedures laid out in canon law made it difficult for bishops to laicize abusive priests.
In Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, a 2001 motu proprio, St. John Paul II transferred authority for investigating abuse cases from the Congregation for Clergy to Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, so that they could be dealt with more speedily.
And in July 2010, under Benedict XVI, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presented modifications to canon law that detailed how the dicastery would examine and punish instances of clerical abuse.