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  • Child Pornography and the Grave Delict of an Offense Against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue Committed by a Cleric with a Minor
  • Mark L. Bartchak (bio)


Following the promulgation of the motu proprio letter Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (SST) in 2001, much has been written concerning the grave delict of an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue committed by a cleric with a minor.2 However, very little has been written about child pornography as it relates to this delict. Monsignor Charles Scicluna, Promoter of Justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) explained that the reserved grave delict treated in SST, Art. 4 §1, is not limited to physical contact with minors or to direct forms of sexual abuse. It includes indirect abuse such as a cleric exposing himself in a lewd or indecent [End Page 178] manner in front of minors or showing pornography to minors below the age established by law. Scicluna also observed that that the CDF was aware of cases in which clerics have been convicted in the civil courts for possession of pornographic images of children and youth.3 Finally, Scicluna stated that "the recent praxis of the Congregation has established that the downloading, as opposed to the simple browsing, of paedophile pornography from the Internet falls under the delictum gravius."4

The modified Normae de gravioribus delictis approved by Pope Benedict XVI on May 21, 2010 now state that "the acquisition, possession, or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors under the age of fourteen, for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology" is a grave delict against morals reserved to the CDF. A cleric who is guilty of this grave delict is subject to the same range of preceptive penalties as in SST, Art 4 §2, including dismissal from the clerical state.5 In a letter announcing the promulgation of these modifications, Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the CDF, observes that the text of SST has not been emended in its entirety, "but only in certain areas, in order to render the text more useful."6 This letter is accompanied by "a brief description of the changes and amendments of the normative text Sacramentorum sanctitatis [End Page 179] tutela."7 According to this brief description which was issued by the CDF, "the acquisition, possession, or distribution" of child pornography by a cleric "are also added as delicts."8 On the day that the modified norms were announced, the Director of the Vatican Press Office observed that the treatment of child pornography involved "the introduction of a new category."9

It can be said that what is not new about Art. 6 §1, 2º of the 2010 Normae de gravioribus delictis, is that the offense involving child pornography has already been understood according to the praxis of the CDF as an offense against the sixth commandment committed by a cleric with a minor. What is new about Art. 6 §1, 2º of the 2010 Normae de gravioribus delictis, are certain specifications that previously were not explicitly published. These are the age of a minor for purposes of this offense; that a minor refers to a pornographic image of a physical person; and the ways in which the offense is committed, i.e., acquisition, possession, and distribution. The promulgation of this norm will certainly contribute to the intended effect of the revised norms as stated by Cardinal Levada. The law that was set forth in SST is rendered more useful because now it is more clearly defined and is no longer left to suppositions based on the less readily known praxis of the Holy Office.

As indicated in the announcement of the new Normae de gravioribus delictis, the recently modified norms must be understood in relation to the recent canonical tradition that is expressed in the substantive and procedural norms promulgated by the motu proprio letter SST, as well as the applicable norms of the 1983 CIC and the 1990 CCEO.10 They should also be understood [End Page 180] in relation to the earlier canonical tradition of the 1917 CIC, including various documents issued by the CDF (previously known as the...


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