Speedier process for clergy abuse appeals in the Roman Catholic Church

On 11 November 2014, Il Bollettino announced a papal Rescript on the establishment of a new judicial body, a college within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for the consideration of appeals relating to graver offences (delicta graviora) of the clergy.[1] This had become necessary on account of the backlog of appeals from clergy against whom allegations of abuse had been made. The purpose of this new body is to speed up the hearings and rulings on appeals of priests who have been laicised or otherwise disciplined for delicta gravoria. It will comprise seven cardinals and bishops appointed by the Pope, although these need not necessarily be members of the CDF.

Currently, the ‘feria quarta’ of the CDF takes place monthly,[2] when it examines 4 to 5 appeals. The new commission will examine solely the appeals of clergy accused of ‘delicta graviora‘, and a special procedure will apply to bishops: their case will be examined by the Ordinary Session – the whole body of members of the congregation – which additionally may examine other specific cases following a request from the Pope and also examine cases referred to it by the newly-created body.

Whilst the Rescript is effective from the date of its publication, at the present time only one member of the new college has been appointed: Archbishop José Mollaghan, who was appointed on 19 May this year as a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with responsibility for dealing with delicta graviora.[3]

Andrea Gagliarducci of the Catholic New Agency summarizes the Church’s earlier efforts to strengthen action against abusive priests:

“Efforts to combat clerical sex abuse began in earnest in 1988, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent a letter to St. John Paul II shedding light on how the procedures laid out in canon law made it difficult for bishops to laicize abusive priests. In Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, a 2001 motu proprio, St. John Paul II transferred authority for investigating abuse cases from the Congregation for Clergy to Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, so that they could be dealt with more speedily. And in July 2010, under Benedict XVI, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presented modifications to canon law that detailed how the dicastery would examine and punish instances of clerical abuse[4].”

In the context of these new procedures, The Catholic Herald observes

“Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Vatican representative to UN agencies in Geneva, told a committee there on May 6 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 were ordered to retreat to a life of prayer and penance.

According to Church law, bishops and superiors of religious orders are required to inform the doctrinal congregation of all accusations against priests that have ‘at least the semblance of truth’ and to work under the congregation’s direction in judging the case. However, the congregation itself can conduct the trial or even use an administrative process to remove a man from the priesthood.”


The Catholic News Agency views this as a further step in implementing a more rigorous regime for tackling abuse of minors by clerics. It quotes Fr Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, to the effect that examining the appeals is “challenging, especially when the appeals are about the abuse by clergy of minors”. He also points out that the case-load is heavy because “many members of the clergy appeal against their sentence for abuse”. However, the new procedures are limited to the appeals process for priests and a number of uncertainties remain. Andrea Gagliarducci notes

“[i]t is yet to be known how the new office will work, how often it will meet, and if its judgement on each case will be always accepted by the feria quarta or if the feria quarta will be able to overturn the college’s judgments”.



The Motu Proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela (SST) [6] of 30 April 2001, amended 21 May 2010, details the crimes reserved to the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (see Art. 1-6), under Article 52 of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus.

In judging the crimes listed above, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith proceeds through the criminal process, judicial or administrative (see Art. 21 §1& §2, n 1 SST), subject to the possibility of directly submitting the decision to the Supreme Pontiff for the most serious cases (see Art. 21 §2 n 2 SST). It is understood, in relation to crimes against the faith, that the jurisdiction in the first instance lies with the Ordinary or Hierarch (see Art. 2 §2 SST).

Because of the number of appeals and the need to ensure a more rapid examination of the same, after deep reflection, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Secretary of State on 3 November 2014,

the Supreme Pontiff Francis has decreed as follows:

  1. there shall be established within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith a special College, consisting of seven cardinals or bishops who are either members of the Dicastery or external to it;
  2. the President and the members of the College shall be appointed by the Pope;
  3. the College is an instance of which the Ordinary Session (Feria IV) of the Congregation shall provide itself for greater efficiency in processing complaints of art. 27 SST, without changing its expertise in the field as laid down in that Article. 27 SST;
  4. where the offender is one invested with episcopal dignity, his application will be examined by the Ordinary Session, which will also decide such cases as the Pope determines. Other cases may also be referred to it at the judgment of the College;
  5. it will be the duty of the College, periodically, to inform the Ordinary Session of its decisions;
  6. a special regulation will determine the internal operating procedures of the College.

The Holy Father has ordered that this general decree be promulgated publication in L’Osservatore Romano, coming into force on 11 November 2014 and subsequently in the official commentary Acta Apostolicae Sedis.

From the Vatican, 3 November 2014

Pietro Card. Parolin, Secretary of State


[1] Original language Italian/Latin: “Rescritto del Sommo Pontefice Francesco sulla istituzione di un Collegio, all’interno della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede, per l’esame dei ricorsi di ecclesiastici per i delicta graviora.

[2] The plenary Ordinary Session takes its name ‘feria quarta’ from the Latin for Wednesday.

[3] The Catholic News Agency describes delicta graviora as “the most serious crimes in the Church, and most notably include offences against morality: the sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric, or the acquisition, possession, or distribution of child pornography by a cleric. In addition to sexual abuse of minors, ‘delicta graviora’ include crimes against the sacraments – including those against Eucharist, such as profaning a consecrated Host; against Confession, such as violating the seal; and against Holy Orders, such as the attempted ordination of a woman.”

[4] John Thavis’s post of 19 July 2010 analyses these changes.

[5] Original language Italian /Latin, here. Frank’s translation, above, is virtually the same as that of L’Osservatore Romano.

[6] The Safeguarding of the Sanctity of the Sacraments.


Suggested citation: David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer: ‘Speedier process for clergy abuse appeals in the Roman Catholic Church’ (Law & Religion UK 12 November 2014) (available at http://wp.me/p2e0q6-44F).

2 thoughts on “Speedier process for clergy abuse appeals in the Roman Catholic Church

  1. An afterthought

    The Revd Professor Ian Henderson began Can Two Walk Together? The Quest for a Secular Morality (Nisbet & Co, London 1948) with a reference to an unnamed Anglo-Catholic devotional manual in which the list of sins for auricular confession included “attending dissenting chapels” immediately after “adultery” and suggested that “… a deity who took the same view of adultery and attending dissenting chapels [would be] a fool…”. Unfortunately, he didn’t name the book in question – but even if the example may possibly be apocryphal it’s still entirely credible. I can still remember books which included lists like that from my Anglo-Catholic childhood.

    I was reminded of Henderson’s story by the illustrative list of delicta graviora. It’s maybe impertinent of me, as a member of a Society that does not ordain anyone at all, to comment further: but I’d have thought that there were at least a couple of orders of magnitude separating the sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric and the attempted ordination of a woman.


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