Protecting children: The spirit of the Gospel and the letter of the law

Drew Dillingham of the USCCB office of child protection is pictured in Rome Jan. 31. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Drew Dillingham
Catholic News Service

(Fifth in a series)

ROME — For six years during middle school and high school, I studied Latin as a foreign language. My teachers constantly repeated the phrase, “Lingua Latina non mortua est” or “the Latin language is not dead.” I am very glad that I listened to their constant exhortations because in this week’s seminars my class at the Gregorian studied canon law as it pertains to sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

In today’s blog, though I am not claiming to be an expert, I will briefly cover the “recent” history of canon law in terms of prosecuting offenders in the church. You can find a more detailed history on the Vatican website. It is my hope that this explanation will give you some insight into the changes that have taken place within church law, and where the law stands today. This will be helpful when you read about abuse cases that arise in the media, since those articles do not typically touch upon this subject.


Pope Benedict XV

First off, the full, original Code of Canon Law (which governs the entire Catholic Church) was promulgated by Pope Benedict XV in 1917. Five years later, an Instruction, known as Crimen Sollicitationis, was developed to create procedures for dealing with delicts or canonical crimes. These procedures, which were updated in 1962, were provided for dioceses to respond in a special way to sexual solicitations by priests that occurred strictly during the Sacrament of Penance. Other crimes known as “crimen pessimum,” which included the crime of sexual abuse of children, were treated similarly. It wasn’t until 1983 that an updated code was promulgated by St. John Paul II to more comprehensively codify the way to respond to the larger issue of clergy sexual abuse of minors.

You can find that major addition to the 1983 Code in Canon 1395 § 2 which states, “A cleric who in another way has committed an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, if the delict was committed by force of threats or publicly with a minor below the age of sixteen years, is to be punished with just penalties not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.” In 1994, the age of minors was raised from 16 years old to 18 years old for the United States, by request.


Code of Canon Law books for the Latin and Eastern Catholic churches. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

So when a member of the clergy is accused of these crimes, where do the trials take place? Until 2001, canonical trials regarding sexual abuse were conducted in individual dioceses, and appeals and recourse were heard by the Roman Rota and the Congregation for the Clergy. It was not until April of that year, with the promulgation of Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela that trials would be conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Some other trials reserved for the doctrinal congregation include heresy, apostasy, schism and desecration of the Holy Eucharist. This shows the weight with which the Vatican considers the crime of sexual abuse of minors.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI, promulgated a revised text of Sacramentorum. Some of the changes included: the addition of “a person who habitually lacks the use of reason” as being the equivalent of a minor; the addition of the “acquisition, possession, or distribution of child pornography” as a delict or crime; the ability to present cases directly to the Holy Father; and the extension of the “normal prescription for action against a delict from 10 years to 20 years … with due regard to the right of the (doctrinal congregation) to derogate from prescription in individual cases” — meaning a case of sexual abuse of a minor can be heard up to 20 years after the last day of a minor’s 18th year, unless the congregation decides it has enough evidence to hear the case anyway. However, individual dioceses in the United States provide assistance to those who have been abused regardless of when the abuse occurred.


Pope Francis outside the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Of course, this is just a brief summary of some of the many aspects of canon law as they relate to sexual abuse of minors by clergy. There is also Pope Francis’ recent motu proprio, “As a Loving Mother,” which focuses on the removal of bishops in cases of grave negligence of abuse; issues concerning religious institutes (CIC Canons 695 and 1717); and the “Essential Norms” that are currently in place as specific law for the United States.

Ultimately, all of our laws must emanate from the words of Jesus himself, who in the Gospel admonishes those who hurt children and calls for us to care for the children in our midst. I hope this overview of canon law as it relates to clergy who have sexually abused a minor will be helpful as you continue to read about cases that emerge in the media. If you are interested in learning more, you can contact your local canonist, read the Code of Canon Law, or visit the Vatican website. Ci sentiamo presto!








Drew Dillingham is the Coordinator for Resources and Special Projects with the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.  He is an avid reader of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and shares his April 26th birthday. Dillingham also dabbles in the works of Bishop Robert Barron, thanks to the ongoing encouragement of his wife, Kim. 


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