The decision would mean that most U.S. cases of clergy sex abuse against minors would continue to be handled without direct Vatican oversight under previously approved special procedures for the United States.
(The handling of the case against John Geoghan would not have been directly affected by the new norms had they been established before he was defrocked, because he was a priest of the Boston archdiocese.)
Pope John Paul II recently published a motu proprio, meaning a letter under his personal authority, announcing that the church's handling of several "graver crimes," including sex abuse of minors by priests, would fall under the authority of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (NCR, Dec. 14).
Canon law experts say the norms are an attempt to strike a balance between expediting punishment of guilty priests and protecting the due process rights of priests who are falsely accused.
The norms do not affect how these cases are handled under secular criminal or civil law. They concern only the church's internal discipline, which could end in involuntary laicization.
The norms appear to reflect provisions of special rules established for the United States in the 1990s, especially in treating as an offense sexual activity with anyone under 18 and establishing a longer statute of limitations.
For the past seven years, the United States has been operating under a special law, reconfirmed by the Vatican for 10 years in 1999, which modified existing procedures for dealing with sex abuse cases.
The special law does not foresee the kind of direct Vatican review established under the new norms. The special law states that for U.S. diocesan cases, the court of appeal is the Roman Rota; under the new norms, the doctrinal congregation's tribunal is the first court of appeal.
A Vatican source said that, after discussion and study, Rome is prepared to allow the special law to remain in effect. He said the decision had not yet been communicated to the bishops.
He said, however, that Vatican officials were discussing with U.S. bishops how to "connect" the U.S. law and the norms. He said, for example, that it would seem logical that U.S. dioceses communicate information about such cases to the doctrinal congregation, even if they are not bound to do so.
He said U.S. cases involving religious order priests would fall under the new norms. That's how such cases will be handled in other countries.
The norms have not been pubfished. Vatican sources have said they will be sent to bishops on a case-by-case basis.
In an Interview with Vatican Radio Jan. 10, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the doctrinal congregation, said the new norms reflected Vatican concern about the scandal caused by sex abuse cases against minors.
"I would not say that [these cases] are greatly multiplying ... We know these cases are highlighted by the media, and, therefore provoke more scandal than in the past, when information about this kind of behavior was considered confidential," he said.
Bertone said it was especially unfortunate that the priestly ministry as a whole has been "offended" by the behavior of "a few persons, a few ministers, when almost the totality of ministers behaves in an exemplary manner."