Pope Benedict has given the Congregation for Clergy new powers to dismiss from the priesthood and release from the obligation of celibacy priests who are living with women, who have abandoned their ministry or who have engaged in seriously scandalous behaviour.
The new powers do not apply to cases involving the sexual abuse of minors by a priest. Those cases continue to be subject to special rules and procedures overseen by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Catholic News Service reports.
The new faculties were announced by Cardinal Claudio Hummes, prefect of the clergy congregation, in an April 18 letter to the world's bishops.
Cardinal Hummes told CNS yesterday that the new, quicker administrative procedure for dismissing priests was prompted by "many situations where canon law did not seem adequate for meeting new problems."
As an example, the cardinal said the 1983 Code of Canon Law made no provision for a bishop to initiate a process to laicise a priest who had abandoned his ministry.
Usually when a priest leaves the ministry of his own accord, he informs his bishop and sooner or later will request a formal dispensation from the obligation of celibacy, the cardinal said.
But others "leave, they marry (in a civil ceremony), they have children. In these cases, the bishops did not have a way to proceed because it was up to the person who left," he said.
"But if the one who left is not interested (in regularising his situation), the good of the church and the good of the priest who left is that he be dispensed so that he would be in a correct situation, especially if he has children," the cardinal said.
Cardinal Hummes said a priest's "children have the right to have a father who is in a correct situation in the eyes of God and with his own conscience. So helping these people is one of the reasons there are new procedures. In these cases, the initiative begins with the bishop."
The cardinal's letter dealt separately with the situation of priests who simply abandoned their ministry for "a period of more than five consecutive years."
It also addressed the more serious cases of those priests who have attempted or contracted a civil marriage, are having a consensual sexual relationship with a woman or have violated another church or moral law in a way that caused serious scandal.
In every case, however, Cardinal Hummes' letter insisted that the local bishop carry out a careful investigation of the facts and, when the evidence confirms wrongdoing, "he should proceed formally to correct or admonish the accused."
Prior to Pope Benedict's approval of the new norms on January 30, bishops seeking to dismiss a priest for abandoning the ministry or attempting marriage had to initiate a formal juridical trial against the person.
Pope grants congregation power to more easily laicize some priests (Catholic News Service)
Congregation for the Clergy