Revisiting Normae De Gravioribus Delictis procedural norms for cases of sexual abuse of minors by a cleric

Revisiting Normae De Gravioribus Delictis procedural norms for cases of sexual abuse of minors by a cleric

THE mass media have recently reported the arrest (in a joint entrapment operation by the Marikina Police and the Department of Social Welfare and Development) of erstwhile Parish Priest of Taytay (Rizal) Msgr Arnel Lagarejos. The 55-year old priest has subsequently been pilloried in the stage of public opinion by tendencious reports, misquoting CBCP officials and giving the impression that the poor priest has already been stripped of all ecclesiastical assignments and suspended from even his priestly functions. What is actually going to happen, according to the norms of Canon Law?

The sexual abuse of minors has been the object of progressive legislation by the Holy See since the first scandals erupted in the mass media in the United States early in this century. This matter has been repeatedly dealt with in a series of articles in this column, but given the present scandal in the diocese of Antipolo, we need to revisit the matter.

Serious and more serious crimes in the Catholic Church

On 15 July 2010, the Vatican Press Office published a new version of Normae de gravioribus delictis─“Norms on more serious crimes”─which dealt with, among other things, the more serious crime of sexual abuse by a cleric of a minor less than 18 years old.

It was actually an updated version of the Annex of a Motu Proprio, entitled Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutelapromulgated on 30.IV.2001 by Pope John Paul II. It gave the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) responsibility to deal with and judge a series of particularly serious crimes within the ambit of Church Law. The Motu Proprio was accompanied by a series of practical and procedural Norms, known as Normae de gravioribus delictis (“Norms on more serious crimes”). The serious crimes to which the regulations referred primarily concerns vital aspects of Church life as such: crimes against the faith (heresy, apostasy and schism) and crimes against the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance. Hence the title of the Motu Proprio (“Care for the Sanctity of the Sacraments”). Only by extension, because of the vast public echo that it attracted in recent years, was the crime of sexual abuse committed by a priest against a minor under the age of eighteen included in the list of more serious crimes, which were reserved to the CDF. Hence the title of the Norms attached to the Motu Proprio (“Norms on more serious crimes”).

Nine years after the promulgation of the Motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, the CDF felt it necessary to propose certain changes to these norms, not modifying the text in its entirety, but rather only in a few areas, in an effort to improve the application of the law. After a serious and attentive study of the proposed changes, the Cardinals and Bishops Members of the CDF presented the results of their decisions to the Supreme Pontiff and, on 21 May 2010, Pope Benedict XVI gave his approval and ordered the promulgation of the revised text.

The text of the Norms on delicta graviora currently in force is the text approved by Benedict XVI on 21 May 2010, and published by the Vatican press office on 15 July 2010.

Serious crimes (Art.2, §1)

The new document starts by establishing the serious crimes against the faith as heresyapostasy and schism, as defined in c.751 and penalized with an automatic excommunication by c.1364, §1 of the Code of Canon Law. It further establishes that “it pertains to the Ordinary or Hierarch to remit, by norm of law if such be the case, the latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication and likewise to undertake a judicial trial in the first instance or issue an extrajudicial decree, with due regard for the right of appeal to the CDF” (Art.2, §2). These cases therefore are not reserved to the CDF, at least not in the First Instance.

More serious crimes

The document proceeds to enumerate the more serious crimes, which are strictly reserved to the CDF. It is important to note that most of these crimes already carry an automatic (latae sententiae) censure, such that what is reserved to the CDF is not so much the imposition of the penalty, but rather its remission or possible declaration (ferendae sententiae), if that were necessary.

  1. Crimes against the Holy Eucharist (Art.3)
  • 1. The more grave delicts against the sanctity of the most Holy Sacrifice and Sacrament of the Eucharist reserved to the CDF for judgment are:
    1° the taking or retaining for a sacrilegious purpose or the throwing away of the consecrated species (with automatic excommunication according to c.1367);
    2° attempting the liturgical action of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, without having been promoted to the priestly order (with automatic interdict or suspension according to c.1378, §2, 1º);

3° the simulation of the administration of Holy Eucharist (with a just penalty according to c.1379);

4° the concelebration of the Eucharistic with ministers of ecclesial communities which do not have apostolic succession and do not acknowledge the sacramental dignity of priestly ordination (with a just penaltyaccording to cc.908 & 1365)

  • 2. Also reserved to the CDF is the delict which consists in the consecration for a sacrilegious purpose of one matter without the other or even of both, either within or outside of the eucharistic celebration. One who has perpetrated this delict is to be punished according to the gravity of the crime, not excluding dismissal or deposition.
  1. Crimes against the Sacrament of Penance (Art.4)
  • 1. The more grave delicts against the sanctity of the Sacrament of Penance reserved to the CDF are:

1° the absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue (with automatic excommunication according to c.1378, §1);

2° attempted sacramental absolution or the prohibited hearing of confession by a person who cannot validly give sacramental absolution (with automatic interdict or suspension according to c.1378, §2, 2°);

3° simulated sacramental absolution (with a just penalty according to c.1379);
4° the solicitation to a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue in the act, on the occasion, or under the pretext of confession (with suspensionprohibitions or deprivation, or dismissal from clerical stateas mentioned in c.1387);

5° the direct and indirect violation of the sacramental seal by a confessor (with automatic excommunicationaccording to c.1388, §1);

  • 2. Also reserved to the CDF is the more grave delict which consists in the recording, by whatever technical means, or in the malicious diffusion through communications media, of what is said in sacramental confession, whether true or false, by the confessor or the penitent. Anyone who commits such a delict is to be punished according to the gravity of the crime, not excluding, if he be a cleric, dismissal or deposition.
  1. Crimes against Holy Orders (Art.5)

The more grave delict of the attempted sacred ordination of a woman is also reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: both the one who attempts to confer sacred ordination on a woman, and she who attempts to receive sacred ordination, incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See (1º); If the guilty party is a cleric he may be punished by dismissal or deposition (3º)

  1. Crimes against Catholic Morals (Art.6)
  • 1. The more grave delicts against morals which are reserved to the CDF are:

1° the delict against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue committed by a cleric with a minor below the age of eighteen years; in this case, a person who habitually lacks the use of reason is to be considered equivalent to a minor.

2° the acquisition, possession, or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors under the age of fourteen, for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology;

  • 2. A cleric who commits the delicts mentioned above in §1 is to be punished according to the gravity of his crime, not excluding dismissal or deposition.

Procedural norms

The procedural norms to be followed in these cases are as follows:

1) Whenever an Ordinary or Hierarch had at least probable knowledge (notitiam saltem verisimilem habeat) of the commission of one of the reserved grave delicts, after having carried out the preliminary investigation, he is to inform the CDF which, unless it calls the case to itself because of special circumstances, will indicate to the Ordinary or Hierarch how to proceed. The right of appeal against a sentence of the first instance is to be exercised only before the Supreme Tribunal of the Congregation.

2) Criminal action in the cases reserved to the CDF─hitherto extinguished by a prescription of ten years after the 18th birthday of the victim─henceforth prescribes only after 20 years, subject to even a longer period if the CDF deems necessary.

3) In tribunals established by Ordinaries of Hierarchs, for the cases of the more grave delicts reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the functions of judge, promoter of justice, notary and legal representative─hitherto validly performed only by priests─henceforth can be fulfilled by anyone with required knowledge of Church Law.

4) Regulations concerning the secrecy of trials are maintained, in order to safeguard the dignity of all the people involved.

A final word on judicial discretion and secrecy

It is important to note that the crimes typified here involve the actual commission of the sexual acts—i.e., the actual abuse of the minor under 18 years of age or the actual acquisition, possession, or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors under the age of fourteen, for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology. Based on this provision alone, the guilt of the hapless parish priest is far from being established, as from the reports, only circumstantial evidences are present, with the actual crime far from having happened yet and much less proven.

Another object of discussion in recent times concerns the Church’s collaboration with the civil authorities. We need to point out that the Norms under discussion form part of the Penal Law of the Church, which is autonomous and distinct from the Civil Law.  This was the object of a clarification by the Guide to Understanding Basic CDF Procedures concerning Sexual Abuse Allegations, as published on the Holy See website (cf. In that Guide, the phrase “Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed” is contained in the section dedicated to “Preliminary Procedures”. This means that in the praxis suggested by the CDF, it is necessary to comply with the requirements of law in the various countries, and to do so in good time: At the preliminary investigation by the local ordinary, not during or subsequent to the canonical trial after the matter had been referred to the CDF.

It is simply unfortunate—a gross abuse of the right of the hapless parish priest in question—that the aforementioned norms to respect his presumed innocence until the contrary is proven have been violated. Not only is he already doing veritable jail time; more importantly his honor has been irreparably damaged by all the partial and confused reports in the mass media.

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