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Vatican toughens rules on sexual abuse of children

The Vatican today made sweeping revisions to its laws on sexual abuse, doubling a statute of limitations for disciplinary action against priests and extending the use of fast-track procedures to defrock them.

world Updated: Jul 15, 2010 20:06 IST

The Vatican on Thursday made sweeping revisions to its laws on sexual abuse, doubling a statute of limitations for disciplinary action against priests and extending the use of fast-track procedures to defrock them.

In an unexpected move, the Vatican also codified the "attempted ordination of a woman" to the priesthood as one of the most serious crimes against Church law.

The changes, the first in nine years, affect Church procedures for defrocking abusive priests. They make some legal procedures which were so far allowed under an ad hoc basis, the global norms to confront the crisis.

"This gives a signal that we are very, very serious in our commitment to promote safe environments and to offer an adequate response to abuse," Monsignor Charles Scicluna, a Vatican doctrinal official who helped revise the norms, told a news conference.

"If more changes are needed, they will be made."

Under the revisions, the statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases was increased to 20 years after the victim's 18th birthday from 10 years under the old rules, meaning victims will be able to file charges until they are 38 years old.

This is significant because many people who were abused by priests as children do not find the courage or legal and moral support to come forward until they are well into adulthood.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the statute of limitations could be extended even further in some cases.

The changes are an update to a document known as a Motu Proprio (Latin for "of his own accord") issued by the late Pope John Paul in 2001 to deal with various grave crimes against Church law.

While the changes involve canon (Church) law, Lombardi said existing Vatican guidance to bishops that they should report sexual abusers to civil authorities remained in effect.

In other changes, sexual abuse by a priest of a mentally handicapped adult will be treated as if the handicapped person were a minor and could lead to dismissal from the priesthood.

Dismissal without trial
The revisions also allow bishops to defrock priests where evidence of sexual abuse is clear without canonical (ecclesiastical) trials, which can be lengthy and costly. The Church will be able to defrock priests in such cases by decree.

They also specify that priests who acquire, possess or distribute child pornography will be considered to have committed a serious offence subject to the same disciplinary action as abusers.

Victims groups said the new rules did not go far enough, particularly because they did not hold bishops directly responsible for the mishandling of abuse cases on their watch.

BishopAccountability.org, a data center for sexual abuse in the Church, called the changes mere "administrative tinkering of a secretive internal process" and said the statute of limitations should have been eliminted instead of extended.

The updated rules also codified as a "grave crime" against Church law "the attempted ordination of a woman" to conform with a decree issued in 2007 to deal with a growing movement in favour of a female priesthood.

The Catholic Church teaches that it cannot ordain women as priests because Christ chose only men as his apostles. Proponents of a female priesthood reject this, saying he was only acting according to the norms of his times.

The changes were prepared by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the department Pope Benedict headed as a cardinal for nearly 25 years before his election in 2005.

They come as Benedict struggles to control the damage a sexual abuse scandal in the United States and several European countries, including his native Germany, has done to the Catholic Church's image.

Five bishops in Europe have already resigned over scandal. One has admitted sexual abuse, another is under investigation and three have stepped down over their handling of abuse cases.

Last month, Benedict begged forgiveness from God and victims of child sexual abuse by priests and said the Catholic Church would do everything in its power to ensure that it never happens again.