The recent sexual abuse scandals which have rocked the Church in the United States and beyond have mostly focused on the abuse of minors. At the same time, many recent revelations and allegations, as in the case of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, have involved the sexual abuse or harassment of adults.


How the Church deals with clerical sexual misconduct when it does not involve minors remains a thorny issue, but an increasingly urgent one. Independent investigations are currently underway by local bishops to examine allegations of serious sexual misconduct in seminaries in Boston, Philadelphia, and Newark.


In a recent interview, Pope Francis highlighted how a "fashionable" acceptance of homosexual relations had entered the Church. During the recent USCCB assembly in Baltimore, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler made the same point, offering it as the explanation for how McCarrick was serially promoted, despite his sexual behavior apparently being known to the hierarchy.


Also in Baltimore, Cardinal Séan O'Malley of Boston, who heads of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said that the bishops need to have a "fulsome discussion about adult misconduct and how to deal with that."


Such a discussion could play a crucial role in forming a common answer to a problem looming large, both in America and Rome. While not yet drawing much attention, several different ideas have begun to surface.

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O'Malley offered his own recommendation for how to address the issue, at least in part.


"I wonder if now is not the time to change the definition of vulnerable adult which we have been using in canon law," the cardinal told the bishops.


The gravest crimes in the Church are handled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Regarding sexually abusive relationships, their competence extends to cases of the abuse of minors and "vulnerable adults."


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The CDF's current definition of a vulnerable adult is someone who "habitually lacks the use of reason," essentially someone with a clearly diminished psychological or rational capacity.


The definition does not apply to many recent cases including, or example, the allegations that McCarrick sexually imposed himself on seminarians. Nor does it apply to instances where priests or bishops take advantage of a spiritual or hierarchical relationship to coerce or groom a subordinate, employee, or parishioner into an illicit sexual relationship.


Some bishops are left exasperated when cases of clear clerical sexual misconduct are returned to them by the CDF as not falling under their narrow legal purview, even when the matter is clearly serious.


Some CDF officials have themselves been left with similar frustrations as they try to make headway with the McCarrick case under intense pressure to deliver a result, but with many of the allegations not appearing to violate a specific canon law.


"I think we need to extend [the definition of vulnerable] to adults who can be the victims of abuse of power," O'Malley said in Baltimore.


An expanded definition along the lines suggested by O'Malley would allow the CDF to treat the cases of sexual misconduct like those alleged against McCarrick.


It could also allow for cases involving lay men and women induced into a relationship with a priest giving them pastoral care to be termed "vulnerable" and come under the same legal treatment as the abuse of minors. It is worth noting that in several states sexual contact between a minister and someone under their pastoral care is a criminal offence. In several states, including for example Minnesota, the consent of the other party is not a defence under the law.


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.