|The Nov. 4 release
of the revisions to the American sex abuse norms, worked out by a commission
from the Vatican and the American bishops, has so far not generated much
media interest in the United States. I suspect this is in part because
the mid-term elections drowned out other stories, in part because the results
were so widely anticipated.
As I anticipated in last
week’s column, the commission tightened the definition of sexual abuse,
restored some due process guarantees for accused priests, and clarified
that lay review boards are advisory only. I was hardly alone in predicting
that things would shape up this way. Those of us who have been covering
the story have been aware of the key Vatican concerns since at least April,
when the American cardinals came to Rome for a summit with officials from
the Holy See.
The handwriting was on
the wall since the wall went up.
Bishop Wilton Gregory,
president of the U.S. bishops conference, issued a statement saying that
the mixed commission “substantially confirmed the decisions made” in Dallas.
Now its results must go before the U.S. bishops during their Nov. 11-14
meeting in Washington, D.C., then return to Rome once again for the recognitio
– the formal legal recognition that would make the program particular law,
i.e., binding and obligatory, for all American dioceses.
Item one from the commission
is a more restrictive standard for what constitutes “sexual abuse.”
In place of the broad
“physical and non-physical interactions” definition in the Dallas charter
(borrowed from the Canadian bishops’ document From Pain to Hope of
1992), the commission reverted to the language currently in the Code
of Canon Law: “An external, objectively grave violation of the sixth
By way of explanation,
the commission added that, “a canonical offence against the sixth commandment
need not be a complete act of intercourse. Nor, to be objectively grave,
does an act need to involve force, physical contact, or a discernible harmful
In truth, both standards
are fairly elastic, and in the end it will fall to bishops and their diocesan
advisory boards to determine whether a particular case qualifies. The commission’s
intent, however, seems to have been to raise the bar in terms of how serious
an act has to be in order to trigger permanent removal from ministry.
The powers and status
of lay review boards is the second major adjustment from the mixed commission’s
Norm #4 from Dallas had
said, “To assist the diocesan/eparchial bishop in his work, each diocese/eparchy
will have a review board.” The revised norms read, “Each diocese/eparchy
will also have a review board which will function as a confidential consultative
body to the bishop/eparch in discharging his responsibilities.” The change
in wording emphasizes that these boards are consultative only, and that
it is the diocesan bishop who has responsibility for priestly discipline.
Some observers will see
this as a defense of clerical power. But from the Vatican’s point of view,
these lay boards could jeopardize the theology of the bishop’s office.
From their point of view, a bishop is to be a paterfamilias to his
priests, both a brother and a father, and just as a good father would not
hand over responsibility for his children to outside agents, a bishop should
not cede authority for his priests. Indeed, many Vatican officials believe
that part of the sexual abuse crisis was precisely the failure of some
bishops to take personal responsibility for overseeing priestly life and
formation. Hence any new structure that looks like another way for bishops
to avoid responsibility is a matter of concern.
I spoke to Bishop William
Skylstad, vice-president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, on Sunday afternoon
the day before the commission’s work was released. He said that all boards
in the church, whether pastoral councils or a finance committees, are ultimately
advisory. A good pastor or bishop, however, does not simply veto or override
their recommendations when they don’t like the conclusions. Do that once
or twice, and most laity will conclude that the game is rigged and will
refuse to play. Hence, Skylstad said, bishops have to take these boards
seriously, regardless of what formal legal status they have.
The revised document
also drops norm #6 from Dallas, which called for the creation of lay appellate
boards at a regional level, which the mixed commission felt would conflict
with the role of existing church appellate courts.
Finally, the revised
norms from the mixed commission pay greater attention to due process, sticking
closer to existing canon law.
Instead of automatic
removal from ministry as soon as an accusation of sexual abuse surfaces,
the revised norms call on the bishop to conduct a “preliminary investigation
in harmony with canon law.” If the accusation appears credible, the priest
is to be suspended from ministry, and even prohibited from celebrating
Mass in public. The bishop is also to report the case to the Congregation
for Doctrine of the Faith, in keeping with the papal motu proprio
of May 18, Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela. That document gives
the congregation the authority to take up the case itself, or to remand
it to a local church court. The operating assumption is that local ecclesiastical
tribunals will generally handle American cases.
The bottom line on “zero
tolerance” comes in norm #8, where the language says that even a single
offense of sexual abuse can trigger permanent removal from ministry “if
the case so warrants.” This seems to provide the discretion for a case-by-case
review that the Vatican wanted.
One key procedural issue
is the statute of limitations. Canon law specifies that an offense cannot
be prosecuted more than 10 years after the victim’s 18th birthday. The
offenses committed by most of the 300 priests removed since Dallas lie
farther in the past. Hence if the statute of limitations were to be applied
literally, most of those priests would be eligible to be reinstated, a
result that one bishop member of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse
said to me privately would mean “pandemonium.”
The revised norms say
a bishop may appeal to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for
a waiver from the statute of limitations for “appropriate pastoral reasons.”
It does not specify what those reasons might be, nor which criteria will
be applied in Rome to evaluate these requests.
The revised norms specify
that an accused priest has the right to an ecclesiastical trial before
final punishment is imposed. Presumably this responsibility will fall to
local church tribunals, although some canonists feel the caseload might
overwhelm the system and that special regional tribunals should be created.
I believe two points
will be critical in shaping public attitudes to the revised sex abuse norms.
First, will the American
bishops embrace a more collaborative mode of exercising power, putting
some of their autonomy in brackets in order to invite lay people into co-responsibility
for personnel, finance, and governance? How bishops manage their relationships
with the laity over the coming months will be closely watched, and will
help determine whether public faith in the bishops is restored.
Second, there are some
patches of fog that remain to be clarified about how the revised norms
will work. What, exactly, are the criteria that bishops and their advisory
boards will use to determine which “grave violations of the sixth commandment”
warrant permanent removal from ministry? Some measure of local discretion
is appropriate, but too much of it and we’re back to the lack of a uniform
national policy that motivated the desire for the Dallas program in the
Also, what will be the
criteria that appellate courts in Rome will use to settle appeals when
they arrive? What standards will the Vatican use to determine in which
cases it will issue a waiver from the statute of limitations? Until these
questions are clearly answered, both victims and accused priests will remain
in the dark about the standards by which their cases will be adjudicated.
Finally, canonists in
the United States are asking questions about what the implications of “permanent
removal from ministry” will be, since it is not a category in canon law.
To quote from one canonist’s reaction: “What are the inherent risks (to
the cleric himself and to the community) of ‘removing’ someone from his
work and giving him nothing specific to do all day every day for the rest
of his life? Where are these men to live out their lives of ‘prayer and
penance?’ Is a diocese able to offer a severance package or request that
the cleric find alternate employment and housing, if he’s young enough
to assume another career?”
All of these are questions
the U.S. bishops must tackle in Washington if they want to finally turn
the corner on what one American bishop recently described to me as an “unremitting
* * *
Though the English language
has been the front line of the liturgical struggles within the Catholic
Church in the last decade, it is hardly the only front in the war. Fresh
evidence of this point came recently in the Nov. 1 issue of the Italian
newspaper Il Foglio.
The Italian bishops’
conference recently approved its third translation since the Second Vatican
Council (1962-65) of the book of scripture readings for use in the Mass,
a collection known as a lectionary. The last Italian lectionary
was completed in 1974. In order to enter into use, the new translation
will have to be submitted for the recognitio, or formal legal approval,
from the Vatican.
One particular change
in this version of the lectionary has raised plenty of eyebrows in the
Holy See. The passage is I Corinthians 9:5, and it currently reads: “Don’t
we have the right to take with us a believing woman, as the other apostles
do, as well as the brothers of the Lord and Cephus?” In the revised translation,
the verse is adjusted to bring out what virtually all modern scripture
scholars agree is its actual meaning – instead of “believing woman,” the
verse reads “spouse.”
Even before the Italian
bishops got around to formally asking for the recognitio, three
Vatican offices sent letters to the Italian bishops’ conference demanding
that the older language be retained. They are the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Divine Worship, and the Congregation
for Clergy. Not coincidentally, these offices were headed at the time by
the three most theologically traditional prefects in the Vatican: Cardinals
Joseph Ratzinger, Jorge Medina Estevez, and Dario Castrillon Hoyos. (Medina
has subsequently been replaced by Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze).
The obvious concern is
that the shift in vocabulary, from “believing woman” to “spouse,” might
weaken support for the discipline of clerical celibacy.
Technically, the three
prefects have the rules on their side. According to the 2001 document Liturgiam
Authenticam, setting out translation principles, the base text for
scriptural citations is supposed to be the neo-Vulgate of 1979, which is
based on the fifth century Latin translation of the Bible carried out by
St. Jerome. There the phrase in I Corinthians 9:5 is sororem mulierem,
which is literally a “sister woman.” Most experts agree, however, that
this term is a euphemism for “wife.”
The point of this anecdote
is that the Vatican continues to take the most exacting, word-for-word
interest in liturgical translation, knowing that the language we use in
worship shapes our beliefs and attitudes. As Gabe Huck, one of American
Catholicism’s best liturgical minds, said recently at the Call to Action
national convention, in liturgy we rehearse the life we want to lead.
Lest one believe that
traditionalists have a stranglehold on the Vatican’s liturgical policy,
however, consider the case of Monsignor Domenico Bartolucci, music director
of the Sistine Chapel from 1956 to 1997. Bartolucci is a longtime critic
of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. Recently he told the Vatican writer
for the Italian newspaper Il Giornale that he has never celebrated
the “New Mass” promulgated by Paul VI, using instead the missal of Pius
V, issued following the Council of Trent. Bartolucci was furious five years
ago when rock star Bob Dylan was permitted to sing for the pope at a Eucharistic
festival in Bologna, arguing that Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna should
have resigned in protest.
At 85, Bartolucci is
still angry that he was forced out of his job at the Sistine Chapel in
1997, despite that the fact that his appointment by Pius XII was supposed
to be ad vitam – for life. The move was engineered by Papal Master
of Ceremonies Piero Marini, more progressive and conciliar in his thinking.
Ratzinger came to Bartolucci’s defense, but Marini held his ground, and
Marini’s candidate, Monsignor Giuseppe Liberto of the Cathedral Choir of
Monreale in Sicily, got the nod in the Sistine Chapel.
This by way of saying
that the Vatican is not monolithic or monochrome, and for every move in
one direction, it almost always lurches in another before very long. In
this way it achieves a kind of balance over time, always imperfect and
certainly capable of reform, but it’s a striking sort of equilibrium nevertheless.
* * *
I’ve finally completed
my cross-country speaking tour promoting my book Conclave: The Politics,
Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election. I spoke with
Bob Kaiser Oct. 30 at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and that
night I was the houseguest of Bishop John Cummins of the Oakland diocese,
staying at the cathedral rectory.
While in the Bay Area,
I had the chance to spend time with two terrific Catholic educators. The
first was James Donahue, president of the Graduate Theological Union, and
the second Jesuit Fr. Stephen Privett, president of the University of San
Francisco. Donahue asked Kaiser and I to join him at lunch, and I was impressed
with his deep intelligence, his accessibility, and his commitment to dialogue.
He and I shared a concern with polarization in the American Catholic community,
and I suspect Donahue may have some creative ideas in the coming months
as to how to carve out spaces for conversation amid the cultural noise.
Privett, meanwhile, is a strong leader with a clear vision of Jesuit education
(with a strong focus on social justice at its core). Privett is well informed,
open, and pragmatic in assessing political realities.
In thinking about the
recent battles over Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the identity of Catholic
institutions, I always feel better after talking to leaders such as Donahue
and Privett. I come away feeling that our schools are in good hands.
I finished my tour giving
two presentations at the national Call to Action conference in Milwaukee.
(I was supposed to return to Rome Nov. 6, but I’m going to stay in the
States until Nov. 14 so I can cover the meeting of the U.S. bishops in
In Milwaukee, I had two
encounters that deserve mention. The first was with novelist, Boston
Globe columnist James Carroll, who spoke on democracy in the Catholic
Church. His lecture, before a packed house of thousands in the main ballroom
at Milwaukee’s Midwest Express Center, was rhetorically artful, and I found
his argument persuasive that democracy harmonizes well with gospel emphasis
on the inherent dignity of each human being.
Afterwards, I mounted
the platform to congratulate Carroll, but more importantly to deliver a
message from my wife, who is Jewish, and who loved Carroll’s book Constantine’s
Sword. Carroll received her praise with grace, and was kind enough
to say that he had enjoyed my session the day before on the election of
the next pope.
The second exchange was
with Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight of the Weston School of the Theology, whose
book Jesus: Symbol of God has attracted interest from the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith. I had not met Haight before, and it was
a pleasure to share a lunch with him. He’s a gracious, mild person, and
one certainly hopes that his present troubles soon pass. Theologians can
debate whether his ideas threaten orthodox Christian thinking, but at least
Haight’s desire to faithfully serve the community seems beyond dispute.
A final word about the
conference itself. I know that Call to Action is not everyone’s cup of
tea, since it takes positions on issues such as birth control and women’s
ordination that place it decisively in the liberal camp. This was my first
experience of a Call to Action national convention. Most of the people
I met struck me as positive and committed to the church. Indeed, many conference
participants were priests, vowed religious or lay ecclesiastical employees.
Yes, some people seemed angry at the institutional church. Yes, some seemed
critical of the hierarchy not on this or that issue, but as an article
of faith. But on the whole they came across as committed Catholics open
to the dialogue.
It was an encouraging
experience, at a time when American Catholicism could use some encouragement.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111