But some worry that broadening the scope of cases handled by the CDF could lead to total gridlock at the already stretched congregation. Prominent voices like Marie Collins, herself an abuse survivor and former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, have drawn repeated attention to the lack of manpower at the CDF for handling existing cases of abuse of minors.
Some have also raised the point that illicit sexual contact between adults should not be conflated with the abuse of minors, even if there are apparently aggravating circumstances. Abuse of minors, they note, has its own special gravity.
During the Baltimore meeting, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago noted that sexual misconduct by clerics with adults and minors were completely different situations, and should be handled differently.
"I would strongly urge that they be separate [in the way they are handled] because it's a different discipline," Cupich told the U.S. bishops.
"In some of the cases with adults involving clerics it could be consensual sex, anonymous [sex], but also involving adult pornography. There is a whole different set of circumstances that need to come into play here as it is examined, and a whole different skill set as well."
Cupich noted that the Chicago archdiocese uses a separate disciplinary board for misconduct involving adults and said that "it really does help us sort out the issues."
While there are some concerns about broadening the definition of a vulnerable adult, other options are being discussed. One of these involves handling clerical sexual misconduct with adults simply as a moral failure and a violation of clerical continence.
Bishops already have the authority to punish clerics engaging in illicit sexual relations. But in severe cases where they want to see the priest laicized, a bishop has to petition the pope through the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy. Laicization is usually only granted in cases where the barriers to and eventual return to ministry are insurmountable, like the fathering of children or severe public scandal.
CNA has learned that some such cases have recently been handled in a new way, one which can take account of coercive pressure or abuse of power, and result in laicization when appropriate, but which keeps the distinction between illicit sexual behavior by clerics and the specific abuse of minors or vulnerable adults as currently defined.
Some canonists familiar with recent decisions by the Congregation for Clergy have told CNA that abuse of office has begun to be applied as an aggravating factor in some cases of sexual misconduct with adults. Canon law provides for this to be done already (canon 1326, 2º), but abuse of office has not previously been invoked when treating cases of adult sexual misconduct.
In the case of a priest who, for example, engages in the sexual coercion of seminarians, or has an illicit affair with a parish employee or parishioner, it has been unlikely that Rome would grant laicization absent a long-established pattern of punishment and reoffending, even in cases where the behavior continued for a period of years before detection.
Applying abuse of office as an aggravating factor allows for distinctions to be drawn between cases in which there is evidence of coercion or abuse of power versus one-off lapses or relations where the cleric's ministry was not a factor, and for different levels of punishment where appropriate.
CNA spoke to a canonist who works closely with the Congregation for Clergy on such cases. They said that while this newly developing method was not a perfect solution to handling cases of sexual misconduct with adults, it offered a practical way forward.
"It's one way to canonically recognize the gravity of an illicit sexual relationship by a cleric without trying to make every case analogous to the abuse of a minor," they told CNA. "It doesn't mean every guilty priest can or should be laicized, but it does create the scope for escalating punishments where they are merited."
Such an approach, which provides greater scope for assessing individual cases and weighing mitigating and aggravating circumstances, could prove prescient.
In an interview released last week, Pope Francis seemed to acknowledge what some have been calling a crisis of continence among certain sections of the clergy.
"This is something I am concerned about, because perhaps at one time it did not receive much attention," the pope said, calling active homosexuality among the clergy in some places "a reality we can't deny."
The reality does appear to be undeniable; statistics indicate that as much as 80 percent of sexual abuse allegations against clergy concern boys or young men.
While underlining the prohibition on ordaining men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies, the pope went on to say that gay priests had a duty to live celibacy with "impeccable responsibility" and that if they could not "it's better for them to leave the ministry or the consecrated life rather than to live a double life."
While the pope's mind appears to be clear, there is – at present – no settled mechanism for local bishops to conform to it.
While it remains to be seen how much attention will be given to clerical sexual misconduct generally during the February meeting of the heads of the world's bishops' conferences in Rome, it is increasingly clear that sexual abuse of minors cannot be discussed or addressed in isolation.
Solving a wider crisis of clerical sexual misconduct will require a bigger conversation, one that may be happening already.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer and worked as Catholic News Agency's Washington DC editor until December 2020.