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Glossary of Terms[1]



Accused: the person against whom a complaint of sexual abuse is made.

Acta: the collection of documents and testimonies relating to allegations of delicts, or crimes (including those of sexual abuse) which furnish the basis for conducting the legal process concerning such delicts. 

Actio criminalis: an action presented before a Church tribunal against a person accused of a canonical delict.  It can be barred by prescription.

Administrative leave: a term used for the temporary removal of a cleric from his assignment during an investigative process, prior to any determination of guilt or innocence.

Administrative penal process: an extrajudicial procedure for determining the truth of an allegation.  The bishop assisted by two assessors or advisors examines the evidence and listens to the defence of the accused.  He gives his decision in the matter through a decree.

Advocate: the person who represents the interests of the accused in a penal action.

Allegation: an accusation, including an accusation of sexual abuse of a minor, brought against a person by a complainant which is reported to the diocese or religious institute.

Apostolic Visitation: an exceptional initiative of the Holy See which involves sending a Visitor or Visitors to evaluate an ecclesiastical institute such as a seminary, diocese, or religious institute.  Apostolic Visitations are intended to assist the institute in question to improve the way in which it carries out its function in the life of the Church.

Assessor: one who acts as a consultor to the bishop in conducting an administrative penal process.

Canon law: the term used to describe the laws of the Roman Catholic Church.  The primary sources are the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983 and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches promulgated in 1990.  Supplemental law dealing with the sexual abuse of minors and other graviora delicta (more serious crimes) is contained in the motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela promulgated in 2001.

Church Authority: a bishop, or a leader of a religious institute or the senior administrative authority of an autonomous lay organization, and his (or her) authorized delegates.

Civil Authorities: local law enforcement agencies (e.g. a police department, the sheriff, state or federal police or a designated child protection agency).

Cleric: one who is constituted in sacred ministry in the Church; clerics are divided into deacons, priests and bishops.

Complainant: the person who has made an allegation against Church personnel.

Congregation: The activities of the Holy See are conducted through various offices or congregations.  The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has as its duty the promotion and safeguarding of Catholic faith and morals, and is currently competent to address the delict of sexual abuse of minors.  The Congregation advises a diocesan bishop or religious ordinary as to the appropriate process for particular cases, and may authorize corrective measures to be taken.

Delegate: the person who investigates a complaint of abuse.

Delict: a crime in canon law, an external violation of a law or precept gravely imputable by reason of malice or negligence.

Diocese: a particular Church entrusted to the responsibility of a bishop usually established by territory within the Catholic Church.

Diocesan Review Board:a panel of people that functions as a consultative body to the bishop/eparch. The board offers advice to the bishop/eparch to help him assess allegations of sexual abuse of minors, and to determine  a cleric's suitability for ministry.

Dismissal from the clerical state: A penalty imposed on a cleric for having committed certain grave delicts.  The penalty can be imposed through a judicial proceeding, or, in an especially grievous case of the sexual abuse of minors, ex officio, in an administrative proceeding.  While Sacred Ordination to the priesthood never becomes invalid, the penalty of dismissal means that the one ordained loses the juridic condition of a cleric.  He is barred from performing functions connected with priesthood or presenting himself as a priest. 

Dispensation from the obligations of priesthood: Sacred Orders, once validly received, never become invalid.  A priest or deacon, however, who recognizes his inability to continue to function as a cleric, can request from the Holy Father a dispensation from the juridic obligations connected with priesthood, including that of celibacy.  The grace of such a dispensation is granted only for the gravest reasons.  Once it has been granted, the cleric is barred from performing functions connected with priesthood or presenting himself as a priest.

Eparchy: the term used to designatea diocese in one of the Eastern Catholic Churches under the responsibility of an eparch.

Ephebophile: term used to describe a person who desires to have sexual contact with postpubescent children aged between 14 and 17, when he/she is at least 5 years older than they.

Faculty: Church authorization, given by the law itself or by a church superior, to perform certain official church acts such as preaching or hearing confessions.

Instance: a term used in the procedural law of the Church to indicate at what level of the tribunal system a particular action is being handled.  For example, when an action is in a “first instance” court, that indicates that it is in the initial trial phase.  A “second instance” court would indicate that the matter is being heard for the second time, as on appeal.

Judge: the person in canon law charged with the responsibility of conducting a canonical trial whereby a decision is made on a matter in controversy, or a penalty is imposed in a case involving an alleged delict.

Minor: a person under the age of 18 years.

Notary: in a canonical proceeding the person who authenticates the Acta of the case.

Paedophile/Pedophile: term used to describe a person who desires to have sexual contact with prepubescent children aged under 13, when he/she is at least 5 years older than they.

Penal Trial: the judicial canonical process by which the truth of an allegation is determined and, if the accused is found to have responsibility for the delict, a penalty is imposed.

Preliminary Investigation: the initial inquiry by which a diocesan bishop or ordinary determines whether an alleged delict such as sexual abuse of a minor has a semblance of truth.  Once that low threshold is met, the case should be referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith where the next stage in the process is determined.

Prescription: in penal law the canonical provision for time limits within which a criminal action can be brought to justice.

Promoter of Justice: the person appointed in each diocese and in the higher tribunals of the Catholic Church whose responsibility it is to provide for the public good.  In penal proceedings, he brings the accusation on behalf of the Church, and prosecutes it before the tribunal.

Religious: a person who is a member of an institute of consecrated life or a society of apostolic life. A “Religious” is distinguished from a “Diocesan priest,” who is incardinated into a diocese.

Religious institute: an institute of consecrated life or a society of apostolic life (cf. canon 607 §2).

Res iudicata: the final conclusion of a canonical trial when the decision is no longer subject to appeal and the decision of the judges can be executed.  In a penal trial involving the sexual abuse of a minor, the decision of the judges in an appeal before the tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Second Instance concludes the process such that the decision becomes res judicata.

Safe Environment: term used to refer to a wide assortment of practices that contribute to preventing child abuse.

Seal of Confession: the obligation of strict confidentiality imposed by divine law on a confessor in the sacrament of penance not to reveal to any person, under pain of excommunication, the sins confessed.

Solicitation: in penal law, an invitation to another to commit a sin.  Specifically, as a delict, it involves the suggestion or invitation of a priest in the context of the sacrament of penance to a penitent to commit a sin against the Sixth Commandment with the priest.

Safety Plan: a formal, written supervision program for a cleric who has been determined to have sexually abused a minor.

Sexual Abuse of a Minor: contact or interaction between a minor and an adult when the minor is being used for sexual stimulation of the adult. This occurs when an adult engages a minor in any sexual activity.

Victim/survivor: a person who has undergone abuse of any kind, and has worked or is working to overcome the negative effects of that abuse.

Votum: an authoritative opinion; in forwarding a case to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith a bishop or religious superior offers his (or her) authoritative opinion on the matter addressed in the particular case.

[1]These terms are provided to assist the lay person in understanding concepts, mostly canonical in nature, often used regarding the handling of cases involving sexual abuse.  The terms are drawn from Canon Law generally, as well as from the following sources: Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference and Catholic Religious Australia: Towards Healing (2010)’ Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults, Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales: National Policy for responding to Allegations of Child Abuse (2004); Conference of Major Superiors of Men of the United States: Instruments of Hope and Healing: Standards for Accreditation (2008); and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: Office of Child and Youth Protection: Glossary (USCCB website).  These terms, which are subject to revision and update, are designed to assist in understanding; the terms provide an aid, but cannot substitute, careful study of canon law.