Today, the Holy See issued revised rules, approved by Pope Benedict himself, that will govern how the most serious offenses under the Canon Law will be handled. Since the most prominent of these crimes is the sexual exploitation of children, I fully expect that the secular press will fail to understand these norms and present a distorted or incomplete view of them, permit me to propose a few observations.
This new legislation reflects a great deal of knowledge that has been learned from hard experience during the “Long Lent” of the past decade, and specifically our American experience under the Bishops Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
One such lesson is that the process of dealing with sexual abuse cases needed to be standardized across the Church. The Canon Law already contained rules that, if used prudently, would have been sufficient in many cases in addressing these offenses. But in many cases these rules were either not being used at all, or were being applied inconsistently from diocese to diocese. These new norms do what good law should do — make the rules and procedures clear, and make it easier to come to a fair and final determination of guilt or innocence.
Another positive factor is the broadening of the kinds of sexual exploitation that will be treated as grave crimes. The new norms include possession of child pornography and the exploitation of developmentally disabled adults among the most grave offenses that will be disciplined. These crimes were not clearly included in the definition before, so it will be helpful to investigators and judges in the future to have this clarification.
It will also be helpful that the process has been streamlined, including easing the process of laicization, the relaxation of rules that permitted only priests to serve as canonical judges, and the ability to resolve clear cases without a trial. While it always has been true that diocesan bishops had the authority to remove offenders from active ministry at any time, the complex and cumbersome canonical process has at times impeded efforts to bring some cases to a definitive conclusion.
What does all this mean in the big picture? I think it shows that the Catholic Church, to the highest level, has renewed her commitment to protecting children and vulnerable adults from the wicked sin of sexual exploitation. For those of us who work for the Church, it is yet another reminder that one of our most solemn obligations, during this time in which the the Bride of Christ has been entrusted to our care, is to ensure that we preserve Her “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27).