Thursday, July 15, 2010

Grave crimes (no misdemeanors)

“What is it with the Vatican?” people are asking in a huff. “Do they really think it's helping matters when they put the sexual abuse of children together with women's ordination and classify them both as 'crimes'?! Why bother issuing a 'new' document at all?”

Yes, a new document from the Vatican. This one was drawn up by the “Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” headed by the American Cardinal William Levada. Approved by Pope Benedict on May 21 and released July 15, it has been summarized as condemning child sexual abuse and women's ordination as apparently equivalent “grave crimes,” provoking disbelief, distress and outright scorn. What gives?

It could be that misperceptions concerning this document spring from the very specific expectations of victims' groups, who cannot help desiring a single, clear, one-size-fits-all solution to the situation that left them so vulnerable. But instead of a sweeping papal action setting an entirely new course, they get a highly technical legal document that seems to lump their particularly personal pain together with an odd assortment of ecclesiastical issues.

What we have is, basically, an updated version of a 2001 document detailing proceedings for addressing violations of Church law in the most serious matters. The 2010 version incorporates the many changes that have been made over the past nine years (for example, streamlining the process for dealing with abuse cases). The only common denominator is that all of these changes had to do with legal protocol in matters that the Church considers “grave crimes.”

There are few people on earth who would deny that the sexual abuse of children constitutes a “grave crime,” no matter what the legal system. It is not the only “grave crime,” but it certainly is one of the most abominable. That does not mean that other issues are not also grave. The Church sees sacrilege as a grave crime, and the attempted ordination of women is not the only sacrilege this document touches on. (Post your sacramental confession on YouTube? Don't go there...)

From a public relations standpoint, it may have been a lot smarter for the Vatican to issue two documents (the US bishops presented the document in two different press conferences!). But the changes now codified in “Normae de gravioribus delictis” are, really and truly, a step forward.

News from Vatican press conference (pretty important stuff)
The document itself (helpful only if you are used to reading Canon Law)
US Bishops' presentation on processes for handling child sexual abuse
US Bishops' presentation on attempted women's ordination in the new document

This post was prepared for The Seeker, a feature of the Chicago Tribune.

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