Francis creates commission to hear clergy sexual abuse appeals

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has created a new Vatican commission to hear appeals of priests and bishops accused of what the church considers grave crimes, such as sexual abuse of minors, wrongful use of the sacrament of penance, and ordination of women.

The move, first hinted at in a brief Vatican note in May but formally announced in an edict Tuesday, is an attempt by the pontiff to address concerns that some accused clerics were not getting an adequate opportunity to defend themselves.

The change comes in a short edict approved Nov. 3 by Francis at the request of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state.

The edict, which goes into effect with its formal publication by the Vatican, establishes a new seven-member "college" inside the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to hear clerical appeals of cases involving delicta graviora, the Vatican term for serious sins against the sacraments.

The edict states that Francis decided to create the new commission "due to the number of appeals and the need to ensure a more rapid examination of the same."

Tuesday's edict is short, consisting only of six brief declarations from the pontiff. According to those declarations, the new commission is to be composed of bishops and cardinals appointed by Francis. Its members are to come up with regulations for the running of their commission, and are to report regularly on their work to the members of the full Vatican congregation.

The edict also specifies that bishops accused in cases involving delicta graviora are to have their appeal heard by the full Vatican congregation and not only the new commission.

Word of the commission first broke in May, when the Vatican made reference in a daily news bulletin that Francis had appointed an Argentine archbishop to be a member "in the commission being established to examine the appeals of clergy for 'delicta graviora.' "

While the edict does not mention that prelate, Archbishop Jose Luis Mollaghan, it seems likely he may be one of the seven prelates taking part in the new commission. The edict does not mention any names of those being appointed to the commission.

The edict updates a 2001 motu proprio by Pope John Paul II specifying which church crimes the Vatican congregation reserves for judgment because of their serious nature. That motu proprio attracted wide press coverage when Pope Benedict XVI updated it in 2010 to include the "attempted sacred ordination of a woman" alongside sexual abuse of minors, heresy, apostasy, and wrongful use of the sacrament of penance.

With publication of the new edict, the process by which accused clerics can defend themselves remains unclear, as most proceedings by the Vatican congregation are handled under a seal of confidentiality.

Regarding clerics accused of sexual abuse, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Vatican representative to U.N. agencies in Geneva, told a committee there in May that between 2004 and 2013, the Holy See dismissed 848 priests from the priesthood as a result of sex abuse allegations found to be true.

In another 2,572 cases -- mainly involving priests of an advanced age -- the men were ordered to have no contact with children and to retreat to a life of prayer and penance.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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