The "instruction" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been in the works for some time. But its impending publication has taken on new relevance amid the abuse scandal that has roiled the Vatican for months, with hundreds of new cases coming to light of priests who raped and sodomized children, bishops who covered up for them and Vatican officials who turned a blind eye.
The norms concern the canonical procedures for dealing with abusive priests, with penalties as severe as being dismissed from the clerical state. Separately, the Vatican issued informal guidelines earlier this year saying bishops should follow civil reporting laws in terms of reporting abuse to police.
It's unclear whether the new set of norms will include any reference to civil reporting requirements. Since such requirements vary from country to country, it would be difficult to make reference to them in a document that is canonically binding on the church around the globe, noted the Rev. Davide Cito, a canon lawyer and consultant at the Congregation.
The norms now in place have been modified and updated from a 2001 Vatican document and set of procedures issued by Pope John Paul II outlining how the church should handle the abuse of minors by priests.
The 2001 documents require bishops to report credible accusations of abusive priests to the Congregation, which then decides how to proceed, including through a full canonical trial. In 2003 - a year after the U.S. abuse scandal exploded - the norms were amended to speed up administrative penalties against abusive clerics where the evidence against them is overwhelming, among other things.
But those 2003 modifications were ad hoc and temporary in nature and had to be reconfirmed, for example, by Benedict after John Paul died in 2005. By gathering them together and including them now in an official, binding document, they become permanent church law.
As a result, the new instruction is expected to contain little that goes beyond what is currently the practice of the Congregation, Cito said. The instruction, for example, is expected to formally extend the 10-year statute of limitations for abuse cases that was imposed for the first time in the 2001 procedures. But those limits have been waived on a case-by-case basis already since 2002 since the 10-year limit was deemed too short.
In addition, downloading child pornography from the Internet is expected to be included as a "grave" canonical crime for the first time in a Vatican instruction. That said, the Congregation's sex crimes prosecutor, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, has written that the Congregation for several years has considered it such in practice.
A Vatican official declined to give a date for the instruction's publication, but said it was expected in the near future. Cito said he understood the document had already been signed by Benedict, who on Wednesday moves to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo for the rest of the summer.
Amid the current scandal, the 2001 norms have been held up by Vatican officials as evidence of Benedict's get-tough attitude to pedophile priests, since he was prefect of the Congregation at the time and signed a letter accompanying the documents to bishops around the world. The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, though, was known to be far more concerned with matters of faith than technical canonical procedures.